Are there Really Undertaker Bees?

In Chapter 2 of Little that I posted yesterday, She-Who-Takes-The-Scentless is an undertaker bee: she takes bumblebees that have died in the nest and deposits them outside. During my years of studying bumblebee colonies, I saw some bumblebees do just that: carry dead bees and dump them outside of the nest. 

In our indoor lab, the bumblebee nests were in wooden boxes that were attached to a screened-in, gazebo-like enclosure. The undertaker bee would dump the dead bodies into the gazebo. Sometimes when I would arrive in the morning there would be several dead bees on the floor of the gazebo just underneath where the colony was attached. The undertaker bee had been busy.

Are undertaker bumblebees born as undertakers? Are they undertakers for the rest of their lives? Bumblebees, as well as honeybees, display what is called “task switching.” Most bees spend their time tending to duties inside of the nest, such as keeping growing bees warm and fed, and fanning their wings to regulate the nest temperature. Some bees switch from nest duties to foraging: they leave the nest to find food (nectar and pollen). We’re not sure exactly what prompts these bees to decide to leave and forage…it could be the queen sends a pheromone-like signal, it could be genes switching on and off within the bee, a combination of these, or some other factor(s). I have witnessed bumblebees sitting on cocoons, keeping them warm, then suddenly one day becoming foragers that forage quite regularly and intensely. Some of these foraging bumblebees stopped foraging after a day or so whereas others spent the rest of their life foraging. In Little, She-Who-Takes-The-Scentless is a former forager. I never observed whether undertaker bees were former foragers, or whether foragers became undertaker bees…So I took some liberties there. 

In Little, I decided to make dead bumblebees scentless. Do dead bumblebees really have no scent at all? I’ll tell you a secret: in my experience, dead bees STINK! There are few things I’ve smelled worse than a dead bumblebee colony, especially a colony that has been dead for a while. Again, I studied bumblebees in an indoor enclosure and the bees were in an artificial nest, so maybe things are different in nature, but I’d wager dead bumblebees still stink. So needless to say I took some liberties with Little there as well.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for Chapter 3…

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