Since it is Halloween week, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss the role of the Mortuary Bee in the beehive.
Most bees, if they know they are about to die, will leave the hive to do so. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, though, and they drop dead in the hive.
The mortuary bee, also known as the undertaker bee, is a worker bee.
She spends her short life moving through different phases of evolution. It starts with her cleaning the hive cell she was born in, then she puts on her nurse hat and feeds and cares from the young, the drones and the Queen Bee. The third stage is where she becomes a handyman bee, fixing honeycomb cells, arranging beeswax and attending to anything that is broken. The final stage of her life is as a foraging bee, where she must leave the safety of her home to venture out and find food to bring back for everyone.
It is usually while she is young and strong, between 3-16 days old roughly, that she performs the tasks of a mortuary bee.
This super short video is 24 seconds long, and shows you a mortuary bee in action, keeping the hive free of a fresh corpse:
This is a very important role, because it goes a long way towards keeping the hive free of diseases and maintaining high cleanliness standards. The honeybee is known for keeping the hive immaculate. It also keeps ants from being attracted to the scent of decaying bee bodies.
If the mortuary bee did not remove the bodies of dead bees from the floor of the hive, the bodies would gradually pile up and could become a health hazard as well as an escape hazard, for at some stage they would block the hive entrance.
The Mortuary Bee removes any dead bee corpses and larvae that did not grow into bees from the hive. Sometimes there is an emergency where hundreds of bees will die due to foraging on pesticide-laden flowers. In such a situation it can take many Mortuary Bees to get the job done. This is a sad and devastating time at the beehive, and the rich hum of 'business as usual' in the hive gives way to a very different sound, if not a disturbing silence.
In winter, she drags the bodies out to the entrance of the hive and pitches them over the side. Then she flies down and drags the carcasses several feet away from the hive. This can be an exhausting undertaking if there are a lot of dead bees, which often happens in winter because the bees are aging at this stage, and don’t have access to as much pollen protein.
In summer, the Mortuary Bee is more likely to drag the corpse through the hive entrance, then fly with the body hanging below until she gets a decent distance away from the hive and drops her cargo to the ground. With the warmth of the sun and more nutritious diet, her strength is better, so it isn’t as hard on her.
It’s an unpleasant job, but it must be done for the greater good of the hive, and as we know, every honeybee is all about serving the oneness of their purpose.
How does a worker bee know she is a Mortuary Bee? In the same way she knows when to move through all the other phases of her short selfless life. The worker bee knows when to shift gears with all the things she does, always in service, and in perfect order.
Happy Halloween to those who enjoy this unique holiday. Have you got any mortuary bee tales to share? Please visit our Facebook page and share your tales with us there.