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‘Vulture Bees’ Have Developed a Taste For Rotting Flesh – And Scientists Are Stumped

A gaggle of scientists biked round Costa Rica’s tropical forests, hanging chunks of uncooked rooster from the bushes, in April 2019. They have been attempting to catch a uncommon insect: carrion-consuming bees.


Slowly, over the following 5 days, giant bees with lengthy, dangling legs flocked to the bait. They crawled over the folds of uncooked rooster, utilizing particular enamel to slice off bits of meat. They gathered the flesh in little baskets on their hind legs, the place different bees acquire pollen, or swallowed the meat to retailer of their stomachs.

The bees have been getting ready to hold the rooster again to their hives, the place they might enclose the meat chunks in pods, depart them there for 2 weeks, then feed them to their infants. Scientists aren’t positive what occurs contained in the pods throughout these two weeks, or the way it impacts the meat. The adults needn’t eat protein. They survive on nectar.

Vulture bees in Costa Rica eating on uncooked rooster bait. (Quinn McFrederick/UCR)

The bees with leg baskets nonetheless acquire pollen for his or her infants, too. But three species – out of greater than 20,000 identified bee species – feed their larvae a completely carrion-primarily based food plan. They’re referred to as “vulture bees.”

These bees are “super crazy on a bunch of different levels,” Jessica Maccaro, a doctoral pupil in entomology at University of California, Riverside (UCR), informed Insider.


“The easiest way to think about bees is that they are vegetarian wasps. They evolved from wasps. Literally what differentiates them from wasps has been that they’re vegetarian,” Maccaro stated. “So this is really surprising.”

Even wasps eat freshly killed meat, although. Rotting flesh could be a minefield of illnesses, as microbes overtake the physique and wage “microbial warfare,” producing highly effective toxins as they compete for meat. Some of the micro organism itself, like salmonella, could be lethal.

“The environment on a dead body is really toxic,” Maccaro stated. “That’s a major thing to overcome to be able to eat.”

That’s why Maccaro’s colleagues have been baiting and capturing these mysterious bees – to review the microbes of their guts and find out how they’re in a position to eat carrion. Sure sufficient, the researchers found that vulture bees’ guts could also be extra like precise vultures or hyenas than their pollen-gathering family.

They revealed their findings in mBio, the journal of the American Society of Microbiologists, on Tuesday.

“The weird things in the world are where a lot of interesting discoveries can be found,” Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at UCR who led the analysis, stated in a press launch. “There’s a lot of insight there into the outcomes of natural selection.”

White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) in Africa. (Yathin sk/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Gut micro organism might assist vulture bees struggle pathogens on rotting meat

The rooster bait attracted an array of bees – one species that solely collects meat, and several other that acquire each meat and pollen.

Separately, the researchers additionally captured some bees that solely feed on pollen. That allowed them to match the center of carnivorous, omnivorous, and vegetarian bees.


The microbes in these guts have been fairly totally different. The vulture bees had plenty of acid-producing micro organism like lactobacillus, most likely creating a much more acidic intestine than their pollen-consuming cousins. That would possibly assist them struggle toxins that type on rotting flesh.

“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,” McFrederick stated within the press launch.

Vultures and hyenas produce a lot of their guts’ acid on their very own, as an alternative of counting on microbes. But the vulture bees’ dependence on micro organism is not any shock to Maccaro. Many sorts of bees use microbes to line their guts, defend them from parasites, and break down their meals.

“We already can see that the microbiome is super important for bees for all these basic functions that we [humans] usually just kind of do ourselves,” Maccaro stated. “So this is another case, where they’re using their microbiome to create this acidic environment rather than doing it themselves.”

Maccaro and her colleagues hope to gather bees in French Guiana subsequent, the place they will discover two of the three bee species that solely collect carrion. They need to research what occurs within the pods the place the vulture bees retailer meat earlier than feeding it to their larvae.

“They store them and they seal them and they don’t touch them for two weeks, and then they can eat the meat,” Maccaro stated. “We’re really curious about what’s happening.”

This article was initially revealed by Business Insider.

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