How Do Termites Treat Colony Members That Have Died?
As far as humans are concerned, funerals are meant to celebrate the life of a person after he/she dies. For us, the ritual of burying the dead is so wrapped up in social customs and beliefs that it is hard to believe that this ritual had a practical origin. Obviously, burying dead bodies is within the best interest of the human population since decaying bodies can cause human disease. The amount of microbes that develop on a recently deceased corpse is staggering. In addition to being a public health hazard, dead bodies also attract many disease-carrying insects. Since humans are dominated by a need for self-preservation, the act of burying or cremating our dead is a matter of instinct. Not surprisingly, social insects, like termites, are no different. You will never see many solitary animals burying their deceased counterparts, but for termites and other social insects, corpses can spread disease within densely populated colonies. Therefore social insects have adapted undertaking behaviors.
In order for termites to recognize when a fellow colony member has passed-away, they pick up on chemical messaging odors that are emitted by termite corpses. This chemical messaging system is quite effective, as termites tend to the undertaking of deceased termites within a matter of a few minutes. Termites will even tend to the corpses of termites from a different genus. For example, Reticulitermes flavipes termites have been found burying dead termites belonging to the Reticulitermes virginicus genus. While worker termites from the R. Flavipes species are burying dead termites from the R. virginicus species, R. flavipes soldiers guard the burial site to ensure that no interspecific competitions arise between the two species. However, when R. flavipes termites encounter members of their own species, they do not bury them; instead R. flavipes termites take the corpses to a chamber where they can be stored until they are cannibalized. Most termites cannibalize dead members of their own species in order to obtain the many nutrients that are contained within termite corpses. Two groups of termites that belong to different genuses, on the other hand, are sensed by termites as being too dissimilar for consumption, so they are buried instead.
Would you be interested in seeing what it looks like to witness a group of termites burying a dead termite from a different genus?