Rotting flesh may be sweeter than honey: These bees evolved to eat meat, researchers say

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While most bees feed on pollen and nectar, scientists say some bees have developed a taste for rotting flesh.

Researchers have learned that a stingless, tropical bee has evolved to have an extra tooth for biting and a gut that more closely resembles those of vultures in order to munch on meat, according to a study published last week in the American Society of Microbiologists’ journal mBio.

The reason? Likely due to intense competition for nectar, study co-author Laura Figueroa told USA TODAY.

"When asked where to find bees, people often picture fields of wildflowers. While true for almost all species, there is a group of specialized bees, also known as the vulture bees, that instead can be found slicing chunks of meat from carcasses in tropical rainforests," the authors wrote in the study titled, "Why Did the Bee Eat the Chicken?"

Only three bee species have evolved to exclusively eat meat, though other species that forage for pollen and nectar may also consume animal carcasses when they are available, according to the study.

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In order to study vulture bees that consume meat rather than pollen and nectar, researchers hung raw chicken from branches in Costa Rica.
In order to study vulture bees that consume meat rather than pollen and nectar, researchers hung raw chicken from branches in Costa Rica.

To study these species, researchers visited Costa Rica, where they hung raw chicken from branches to attract vulture bees.

They dodged bullet ants and problem solved when the chicken was stolen by other animals, said Figueroa, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cornell University. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of California, Riverside also participated.

While stingless bees usually collect pollen in small baskets on their hind legs, the researchers saw vulture bees use the baskets to carry their meat, according to the study.

"They had little chicken baskets," said Quinn McFrederick, a UC Riverside entomologist, in a statement to UC Riverside.

Researchers also noticed the bees preferred fresh meat that was just starting to decompose and would avoid fully rotted meat.

Upon further study, they found the vulture bee gut microbiome is full of acid-loving bacteria similar to those found in vultures and hyenas, Figueroa said. One of the bacteria types, called Lactobacillus, is also found in a lot of fermented foods like sourdough, while another bacteria found in vulture bee guts, Carnobacterium, is associated with flesh digestion.

Figueroa said the bacteria helps protect the bees from pathogens found in rotting meat.

"For us, we can tell if we open our fridge and something has gone bad. And if you were to eat it, it's going to make you sick," she said. "So animals that are scavengers have evolved this microbiome and this physiology to deal with that bacteria and still be able to take advantage of that food source."

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Figueroa said vulture bees still produce sweet, edible honey, though she has never tasted it herself.

But many carnivorous bees are not quite as sweet. Though they can't sting, some species can bite and a few "produce blister-causing secretions in their jaws, causing the skin to erupt in painful sores," entomologist Doug Yanega, one of the study authors, told UC Riverside.

Still, Figueroa sees the insects as beautiful. When she was first introduced to the bees in 2015, she quickly "fell in love with them" and sought to do more research on the species, which was lacking studies.

"They're not scary even though they may sound a little bit scary," she said.

She said she hopes the study will encourage environmental conservation of the areas where the bees live and that it "gets people excited about the diversity of animals in the world."

The research team plans to continue studying vulture bee microbiomes in hopes of documenting more of the bacteria, fungi and viruses in their bodies.

"There's still so much to learn about these bees," Figueroa said. "There's a lot of questions still to be answered."

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vulture bees evolved to eat rotting flesh, have guts like vultures

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