Scientists have found bees that have evolved to eat and digest meat — not just fresh but carrion as well, an ability which gives them their name of ‘vulture bees.’ According to the scientists at Cornell University, University of California Riverside and American Museum of Natural History, these bees have developed acid-loving bacteria in their guts similar to the ones found in the stomachs of vultures and hyenas. The new find is interesting as bees are believed to be typically vegetarian and it is only recently that they were discovered to be omnivores if one considered microbes in the nectar to qualify as meat. But now, scientists have witnessed the ‘vulture bees’ eat fresh pieces of raw chicken. The reason for this evolution, scientists believe, is the extreme competition for nectar.
To lure the vulture bees, scientists went to Costa Rica and suspended pieces of raw chicken meat from tree branches. To make sure ants do not eat them before the bees come, the researchers had smeared the meat pieces with petroleum jelly.
The baits attracted stringless bees who not only fed on the raw chicken but also stored it in their baskets on their hind legs. The bees that were attracted include vulture bees, who only eat meat, and some omnivorous bees that opportunistically feed on meat for protein. Scientists captured the vulture bees and their vegetarian and omnivorous relatives. When they analysed the captured bees they found that the carnivorous bees had undergone very extreme changes.
“The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have,” said Quinn S. McFrederick, one of the scientists who worked on the study. The bacteria in vulture bees’ guts also protect the bees from the pathogens in the rotten meat.
Another interesting find was that the bees, despite having developed an appetite for dead meat, could still produce sweet and edible honey. According to scientists, the bees store the meat in special sealed-off chambers, separately from where the honey is stored, for two weeks before accessing it. The study was published on November 23 in the American Society of Microbiologists’ journal mBio.