While the great majority of bee species rely on flower pollen and nectar for nutrition, a few “vulture bees” have evolved to feed on carrion, much like vultures and hyenas.
Only a few decades ago, entomologists made the startling revelation that not all bees eat pollen and nectar. They discovered three bee species deep in Costa Rica’s rainforests that seemed to prefer dead flesh to flowers. According to a recent study, these “vulture bees” contained stomach bacteria that looked to thrive in acidic environments, precisely like the bacteria found in the guts of other carrion-loving species such as vultures and hyenas. Another interesting observation was that the vulture bees produced excellent honey despite their unique diet.
“The simplest way to conceive of bees is as vegetarian wasps.” They descended from wasps. “What distinguishes them from wasps is that they’re vegetarian,” Jessica Maccaro, a doctorate student in entomology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), told Insider. “This is quite surprising.”
It’s worth noting that even wasps only consume fresh meat because carrion is frequently tainted with potentially lethal diseases like salmonella and other harmful substances. As a result, only a few creatures, including the three vulture bee species, have the stomachs to deal with a carrion-based diet.
By hanging chunks of raw chicken from trees in the rainforests of Costa Rica, entomologists attracted a bunch of different bees, some that feasted on both nectar and meat, and three that only preferred the meat. It was these last vulture bees that captured their attention over the last couple of years. That’s because the microbes in their guts were quite different than the ones usually observed in bees.
“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,” Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at UCR, wrote in a press release for the recently-published study.
One of the mysteries that entomologists hope to uncover next is what happens to the collected carrion that vulture bees store in special pods for up to two weeks before consuming it and feeding it to their young. Apparently, the bees don’t touch the meat for two weeks, so scientists are curious what happens to it in the pods during that time.
Interestingly, scientists report that even though vulture bees feed on dead flesh, their honey is still sweet and edible. Though, knowing their diet, who would even want to try it?