Both professional and non-professional phagocytes  participate in clearing the massive numbers of cells that undergo apoptosis during animal development , but it is not known how they divide this task. Using time-lapse recordings of cells in culture, we show that professional phagocytes (brain macrophages or microglia) are highly motile, ingest apoptotic cells immediately, and digest them quickly. Non-professionals such as BHK and lens epithelial cells are sessile, often recognize apoptotic cells as soon as they die by showing characteristic palpating movements, but delay ingestion until several hours later. By pre-ageing apoptotic cells, we show that this delay is because the apoptotic cells must undergo further changes before non-professionals can ingest them. The difference was also apparent in vivo, using immunofluorescence and electron microscopy of the developing central nervous system. This arrangement favours prompt clearance by professionals if present in adequate numbers; if they are scarce, however, non-professional bystanders will reluctantly clear the apoptotic cells.