‘Vulture bees’ feed their babies rotting flesh, even though it breeds toxin-producing bacteria. They’re a mystery to scientists.

by | Nov 23, 2022 | Science

Vulture bees in Costa Rica dining on raw chicken bait.Quinn McFrederick/UCR”Vulture bees” feed their larvae rotting meat instead of relying on pollen like other bees.Scientists hung raw chicken in Costa Rica and watched vulture bees fill their leg pouches and stomachs with it.They found acid-producing microbes in the bees’ guts. Acid helps vultures and hyenas digest carrion.Hanging chunks of raw chicken in trees is an unusual activity, even for scientists. But the researchers biking through Costa Rica’s tropical forests, stringing poultry flesh along branches in April 2019, were pursuing an unusual insect: bees that eat decaying flesh, or carrion.Slowly, over the next five days, large bees with long, dangling legs flocked to the bait. They crawled over the folds of raw chicken, using special teeth to slice off bits of meat. They gathered the flesh in little baskets on their hind legs, where other bees collect pollen, or swallowed the meat to store in their stomachs.The bees were preparing to carry the chicken back to their hives, where they would enclose the meat chunks in pods, leave them there for two weeks, then feed them to their babies. Scientists aren’t sure what happens inside the pods during those two weeks, or how it affects the meat. The adults don’t need to eat protein. They survive on nectar.The bees with leg baskets still collect pollen for their babies, too. But three species — out of more than 20,000 known bee species — feed their larvae an entirely carrion-based diet. They’re called “vulture bees.”These bees are “super crazy on a bunch of different levels,” Jessica Maccaro, a doctoral student in entomology at University of California, Riverside (UCR), told 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 said. “So this is really surprising.”Even wasps eat freshly killed meat, though. Rotting flesh can be a minefield of diseases, as microbes overtake the body and wage “microbial warfare,” producing powerful toxins as they compete for meat. Some of the bacteria itself, like salmonella, can be deadly.Story continues”The environment on a dead body is really toxic,” Maccaro said. “That’s a major thing to overcome to be able to eat.”That’s why Maccaro’s colleagues were baiting and capturing these mysterious bees — to study the microbes in their guts and learn how they’re able to eat carrion. Sure enough, the researchers discovered that vulture bees’ guts may be more like actual vultures or hyenas than their pollen-gathering relatives. They published their findings in mBio, the journal of the American Society of Microbiologists, in November 2021.”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 research, said in a press rel …

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