Scientists led by experts from the University of California, Riverside, found bees in Costa Rica that developed a taste for flesh after evolving an extra tooth for biting meat. The team studied how the evolution has changed the species' gut microbiota enabling it to adapt to its vulture-like behavior.

Researchers lured these so-called vulture bees in using pieces of raw chicken and found that they have an unusually acidic gut and microbe species. They believed that vulture bees evolved to become meat-eating insects to avoid competition for nectar.

 Bees in Costa Rica Evolved to Have Extra Tooth and a Gut Similar to Vultures to Eat Meat Instead of Nectar
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)
Sugarbag bee (Trigona carbonaria) in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Meat-Eating Bees the Only Bees That Evolved to Eat Food Not Produced by Plants

The study titled "Why did the bee eat the chicken? Symbiont Gain, Loss, and Retention in the Vulture Bee Microbiome," published in mBio, collected 159 bees from 17 species and nine genera that ate either carrion, pollen, or both.

Daily Mail reported that researchers observed how vulture bees eat chicken meat and store them in pockets, similar to how pollen-eating bees store their foraged finds.

UCR entomologist Doug Yanega said in a statement that vulture bees are thought to be the only bees in the world that evolved to use food products that are not from plant sources, which shows a remarkable change in diet.

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Vulture Bees Consume Dead Meat

The first vulture bee was discovered in 1902 by entomologist Filippo Silvestri, according to ARS Technica. Nobody called it the vulture bee during that time, but Silvestri dubbed it Trigona hypogea.

Then 80 years later, entomologist David Roubik of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama reported that Trigona hypogea colonies ingested meat from dead animals, such as monkeys, snakes, lizards, fish, and birds. He observed that bees would leave a trail of pheromones to the rotting flesh to call their nestmates, and they would converge en masse on the corpse within eight hours.

Vulture bees would first enter the carcass via the eyes, similar to maggots, as they work efficiently and consume the rotting flesh. They can eat a dead lizard for two days, while it only takes eight hours to remove all the feathers and flesh of a passerine's head. More so, they reduced two frogs to a skeleton in just six hours.

They eat the dead meat on-site and store the eaten slurry in their crops to bring back to their nests, converting it into some glandular substance before storing it in wax pots.

Vulture Bees' Diet Altered its Gut Microbiome

According to IFL Science, vulture bees are not only meat-eating bees but are also stingless. However, they are not defenseless because their bite can produce blister-causing secretions that cause painful sores and skin illness.

Moreover, stingless bees have guts similar to bumblebees and honeybees colonized by the same five core types of microbes. Most bees retain these bacteria for 80 million years of evolution, but the diet of vulture bees has altered their gut microbiome.

Researchers found some significant changes in their gut microbiome. It is enriched with acid-loving bacteria that other species of bees do not have. These bacteria are similar to the gut microbiome found in vultures, hyenas, and other carrion-feeders that protect them against pathogens in carrion.

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