The bees that became carnivorous

It’s a species of bee from Costa Rica. It seems to have a taste for meat. It even developed an extra tooth for biting into it. And a gut that looks more like a vulture’s. These are the bees that turned carnivorous.

These are the bees that became carnivorous, the vulture bees.
These are the bees that became carnivorous, the vulture bees.

Changing the menu

They were studied by researchers at the University of California, Riverside. They explain why vulture bees evolved a carnivorous diet. They wanted to avoid intense competition for nectar and pollen. “They are the only bees in the world that have evolved this way. They use food sources not produced by plants. It’s a pretty remarkable change in their feeding habits,” said paper co-author Doug Yanega.

That’s not the only unusual thing. Some can produce secretions in their jaws that cause blisters when they bite down. They would cause painful sores to appear on the skin.

“In humans, the intestines change with every meal. But bees are not like that. They retain the same bacteria over some 80 million years of evolution.” So says the author of the article and entomologist Jessica Maccaro.

It’s a radically different diet – would vulture bees have a different gut microbiome than vegetarians? The team set up bait stations to test it. They contained fresh pieces of raw chicken suspended from twigs. They smeared them with petroleum jelly to deter ants.

They feasted on the chicken meat baits the researchers used.
They feasted on the chicken meat baits the researchers used.

Pollen for meat

The baits succeeded in attracting vulture bees. And other like-minded species that feed on carrion. The insects used the small baskets on their hind legs to store meat. Stingless bees normally use this to collect pollen.

The team compared bees that became carnivorous with other stingless bees. The results showed that there are extreme changes in the gut microbiota of the former.

“The microbiome of vulture bees is enriched in bacteria. They like an acidic environment. These are new bacteria that their relatives do not have. These bacteria are similar to those found in king vultures. They’re on hyenas and other animals that feed on carrion. Presumably to help protect them from pathogens,” the researchers explained.

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