(ABC4) – Normally, bees don’t have a need to feed on meat. Pollen and nectar are typically their go-to meals. But for one species of stingless bees in Costa Rica, raw chicken attracts these newly evolved “vulture bees.”
A new study has found that due to intense competition of nectar, a newly evolved species of bees have developed guts that more closely resemble that of vultures rather than other bees.
“These are the only bees in the world that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants, which is a pretty remarkable change in dietary habits,” said UC Riverside entomologist Doug Yanega in a news release.
Mindblown by the revolutionary adaptation, a team of UCR scientists questioned whether or not the vulture bees’ gut bacteria were different from those of a vegetarian bee. The study found that the two differed greatly.
The researchers set out to Costa Rica, where these “vulture bees” normally reside. Baits containing fresh pieces of raw chicken were set up and suspended from branches and smeared with petroleum jelly to deter ants.
Once set up, the baits did indeed attract the vulture bees and related species that “opportunistically feed on meat for the protein element.”
Researchers say normally, stingless bees have baskets on their hind legs for collecting pollen. The team noticed that carrion-feeding bees were using those same structures to collect the raw chicken bait.
“The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have,” McFrederick said. “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.”
One bacteria that shows up in vulture bees is Lactobacillus, which is in fermented foods that humans eat, like sourdough, a news release explains.
“It’s crazy to me that a bee can eat dead bodies. We could get sick from that because of all the microbes on meat competing with each other and releasing toxins that are very bad for us,” Maccaro said.
Aside from the bees eating raw chicken, scientists say they are unusual in other ways as well.
Although the bees can’t sting, they’re not completely defenseless. Some range from being completely innocuous to having the ability to bite. Others can even produce blister-causing secretions in their jaws, causing the skin to spew painful sores.
“Unlike humans, whose guts change with every meal, most bee species have retained these same bacteria over roughly 80 million years of evolution,” said Jessica Maccaro, a UCR entomology doctoral student.
The radical change in food choice is ultimately due to the bee’s newly evolved acidic gut.