Thursday 9 December 2021

When bees get a taste for dead things: Meat-eating ‘vulture bees’ in Costa Rica

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QCOSTARICA – Typically, bees don’t eat meat. However, a species of stingless Vulture bees has evolved the ability to do so, presumably due to intense competition for nectar.

Far from the fuzzy vegetarians we have come to know and love, these bees are carnivorous and have the teeth and – as it turns out – guts to go with it. And as it turns out, Costa Rica is home for them.

“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.

Vulture bees in Costa Rica dining on raw chicken bait. (Quinn McFrederick/UCR)
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Honeybees, bumblebees, and stingless bees have guts that are colonized by the same five core microbes. “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.

Read more: “I ate it. I ate the wasp.” Costa Rica President Luis Guillermo Solis

A paper published in the journal mBio took a deep dive into these beasties’ bowels. Their investigations revealed that in true vulture by name, vulture by nature style, these bees share gut microbiome constituents with the carrion-consuming birds. The adaptation reveals how it is that these bees have developed such a taste and tolerance for rotting carcasses.

The study (humorously titled “Why did the bee eat the chicken? Symbiont Gain, Loss, and Retention in the Vulture Bee Microbiome”) collected 159 bees that ate either pollen, carrion, or a bit of both, amounting to 17 species from nine genera.

They were mostly collected from La Selva and Las Cruces field stations in Costa Rica using carrion and chicken as bait.

An individual from the Trigona family of stingless bees, some of which eat meat. (Ricardo Ayala)

Watching the meat eaters flock to their rancid offerings, the researchers made a curious observation.

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“They had little chicken baskets,” said UCR entomologist Quinn McFrederick in a statement – the vulture bees stored meat in pockets, much like how pollen-eating bees store their foraging finds.

Vulture bees are unique as they are thought to be “the only bees in the world that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants,” said Yanega, who says it constitutes “a pretty remarkable change in dietary habits.”

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.”

And that wasn’t the only surprising difference.

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“Even though they can’t sting, they’re not all defenseless, and many species are thoroughly unpleasant,” Yanega said. “They range from species that are genuinely innocuous to many that bite, to a few that produce blister-causing secretions in their jaws, causing the skin to erupt in painful sores.”

Despite their savory diet and unsavory behavior, the honey of vulture bees is reportedly still edible and actually sweet.

Sources: UCR.Edu;



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Q Costa Rica
Reports by QCR staff

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