When a press release begins with “Typically, bees don’t eat meat,” you can almost figure out what bad news is coming next. When the press release describes them as “vulture bees,” you know it’s only going to get worse. When the news is that these bees have evolved to eat rotten meat and still make honey, you can bet at least one of your strange friends is already searching the Internet for a jar. Welcome to the still evolving world of carrion-eating Costa Rican vulture bees.
“It’s crazy to me that a bee can eat dead bodies. We could get sick from that because of all the microbes on meat competing with each other and releasing toxins that are very bad for us.”
And yet, as Jessica Maccaro, a University of California Riverside entomology doctoral student and study co-author explains in the press release, a species of tropical bees does exactly that. While this offshoot of stingless bees has been known two centuries, their carnivorous habit was only discovered in 1982, and how and why it eats rotting meat is still a mystery, so Maccaro and other entomologists from UCR went to Costa Rica to study them – research that resulted in a paper published this week in the American Society of Microbiologists’ journal mBio. They wanted to find out when these members of the genus Trigona deviated from 80 million years of the gut of all bees never changing the bacteria that digests the vegetation they eat. They also were searching for how these vulture bees developed a tooth for biting into flesh. Is this an entomology treatise or a horror movie script?
“The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have. These bacteria are similar to ones found in actual vultures, as well as hyenas and other carrion-feeders, presumably to help protect them from pathogens that show up on carrion.”
UCR entomologist Quinn McFrederick explains how these vulture bees live up to the ‘vulture’ half of their name, with guts loaded with vulture bacteria as well as Lactobacillus, which is in fermented foods like sourdough, and Carnobacterium (there’s a scary name) which facilitates flesh digestion. While some stingless vegetarian bees occasionally dabble in meat, the traps the researchers set out showed vulture bees are exclusive carnivores – the bait they used was chicken meat. When devouring a dead Costa Rican animal, the vulture bees generally enter through the eyes, use their tooth to cut chunks of meat, and then carry the carrion in leg baskets to the hive. That’s where the ‘bee’ half of their name kicks in.
“They store the meat in special chambers that are sealed off for two weeks before they access it, and these chambers are separate from where the honey is stored.”
Yes, the vulture bees make vulture honey that is reportedly sweet and edible as honey should be. The researchers suspect these bees evolved to meat due to competition with other bees over scarce supplies of nectar. However, the tools they evolved to cut meat serve them well in protecting their honey and would put them back on top of the nectar food chain if they went back – besides biting with that sharp tooth, some produce blister-causing secretions in their jaws that cause human skin to develop painful sores.
The carrion-eating vulture bees of Costa Rica may not be as dangerous to humans as the African killer bees, but it sounds like they could be the perfect foe for those bee-killing giant Asian ‘murder’ hornets. Can we get that on pay-per-view?