“Vulture bees” evolved a taste for flesh—and their microbiomes reflect that

DMCA / Correction Notice
- Advertisement -

Quinn McFredrick / UCR

- Advertisement -

Ask a random person to take a picture of a bee, and they’ll likely attract the familiar black-and-yellow striped creature back to the hive to collect pollen from flower to flower. But a more unusual group of bees can be found “picking up flesh from carcasses in tropical rainforests,” according to the authors of a new paper Published in the magazine MBO. As a result, these bees have gut microbiomes that are markedly different from their fellow barges, with populations more common to carrion-loving hyenas and vultures. Therefore they are commonly referred to as “vulture bees” (or “carrion bees”).

According to authors from the University of California, Riverside (UCR), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History—most bees are essentially “waps that switched to a herbivorous lifestyle.” But between 1758 and 1837 There are two recorded examples of bumblebees feeding on carrion, and some species are known to occasionally feed on carrion in addition to forage for nectar and pollen. (They are considered “facultatively necrophages” in contrast to vulture bees, which are considered “compulsive necrophages” because they eat only flesh.)


An entomologist named Filippo Silvestri, analyzing a group of pinned specimens, identified the first “vulture bee” in 1902, although no one called it that, as they did not know at the time that the species was on carrion. feeds. sylvestri dubbed it trigona hypogia, and they described their nests as being used for honey and pollen, although later researchers noted a surprising absence of pollen. Instead, biochemical analysis revealed that the bees’ nests contained secretions similar to those fed to queen bees.

Then, in 1982, entomologist David Rubik of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama reported some surprising findings from his observations. trigona hypogia Colonies. Instead of collecting pollen from flowers, this species swallowed the flesh of dead animals: lizards, monkeys, snakes, fish and birds. Bees that stumble upon a tasty piece of rotten flesh accumulate a trail of pheromones to call their nest mates, who usually convert a lot Within eight hours on the corpse.

<em>trigona hypogia</em> A worker bee is harvesting the rotting flesh of a small lizard.  Because could.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/vulturebee2-640×427.jpg” width=”640″ height=”427″ srcset=”https:/ /cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/vulturebee2.jpg 2x”></a><figcaption class=
DW Rubik, 1982
- Advertisement -

Vulture bees often enter a carcass through the same eyes as maggots, and Rubik paid particular attention to how efficiently they could consume a carcass. A large lizard was turned into a skeleton in two days, while it took the bees just eight hours to remove all the feathers and flesh from a dead passerby’s head. He turned two frogs into skeletons in six hours. Because they fed on carrion rather than collecting pollen, this species had a distinctive hind leg, with a much smaller pollen basket than “herbivorous” bees.

Bees consume the meat on site, depositing a kind of “meat slurry” in their crops to bring back to the hive. Rubik speculates that, once in the hive, the bees turned that solution into some sort of glandular substance, which they stored in a wax vessel. “Given that animal flesh would be unsuitable as and stored food, its metabolic conversion is necessary to allow for storage,” they wrote. Another hypothesis proposed in 1996 suggests that the actual meat is what is stored in wax pots.

<em>trigona hypogia</em> The dentate mandible (A) and the hind tibia (B).” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/vulturebee3-640×210.jpg” width=”640″ height= “210” srcset=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/vulturebee3.jpg 2x”></a><figcaption class=
DW Rubik, 1982

We now know of three distinct groups of vulture bees that obtain their proteins exclusively from carcasses: trigona hypogia, trigona crassipes, And trigona necrophage, These are stingless bees, but they have five large, sharp teeth, and have been known to bite. Their bites release substances that can cause painful blisters and sores.

- Advertisement -

Stay on top - Get the daily news in your inbox

Recent Articles

Related Stories