"Flying Bee" by Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin / CC BY-SA 2.0

How ‘undertaker’ bees recognize dead comrades

Mar 20, 2020

By Eva Frederick

They’re the undertakers of the bee world: a class of workers that scours hives for dead comrades, finding them in the dark in as little as 30 minutes, despite the fact that the deceased haven’t begun to give off the typical odors of decay. A new study may reveal how they do it.

“The task of undertaking is fascinating” and the new work is “pretty cool,” says Jenny Jandt, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Otago, Dunedin, who was not involved with the study.

Wen Ping, an ecologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, wondered whether a specific type of scent molecule might help undertaker bees find their fallen hive mates. Ants, bees, and other insects are covered in compounds called cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs), which compose part of the waxy coating on their cuticles (the shiny parts of their exoskeletons) and help prevent them from drying out. While the insects are alive, these molecules are continually released into the air and are used to recognize fellow hive members.

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