Insectes Sociaux

, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 533–541 | Cite as

Guard bees are more likely to act as undertakers: variation in corpse removal in the bumble bee Bombus impatiens

  • A. Walton
  • J. M. JandtEmail author
  • A. Dornhaus
Research Article


Task specialization is one of the distinguishing features of social insect colony organization. Here we study the task of corpse removal (‘undertaking’) from the nest in three Bombus impatiens colonies. We determine (1) which task these bees perform when corpses are absent from the nest; (2) the degree to which worker body size relates to undertaking behavior; and (3) whether certain bees are more likely to completely remove corpses (i.e., are better undertakers)? We found that only ~ 31% of the workers in a colony participated in corpse removal even when corpses were abundant (and only ~ 12% participated in more than one trial, i.e., were “repeat undertakers”). Larger bees, and those that engaged in guarding tasks when corpses were absent, were more likely to perform undertaking. In addition, repeat undertakers, who were not necessarily larger than one-trial undertakers, were more successful at removing corpses and invested more effort per trial. Overall, our results are consistent with the interpretation that workers who are more likely to engage in guarding tasks (who also tend to be larger and patrol throughout the nest) may be more vigilant and sensitive to changes in the chemical nature of the nest, and so will also perform undertaking when it becomes necessary.


Collective behavior Hygienic behavior Colony task performance Necrophoresis Body size variation 



We thank Stefanie Neupert, members of the Jandt Lab, University of Otago, and two anonymous reviewers for feedback on the manuscript. Research was supported through grants awarded by the Center for Insect Science, University of Arizona and by National Science Foundation, Division of Integrative Organismal Systems Grant no. IOS-1455983 to AD.

Supplementary material

40_2019_718_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (612 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 611 kb)
40_2019_718_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (344 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (PDF 343 kb)


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Copyright information

© International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal BiologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  2. 2.Department of Neurobiology and BehaviorCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.Department of ZoologyUniversity of DunedinDunedinNew Zealand
  4. 4.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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