Meat-eating bees have evolved special bacteria allowing them to eat flesh

When you think of a bee, you probably think of harmless, though slightly stingy, pollen and nectar collectors.

Maybe you picture a worker bee delivering you a jar of honey or a weird and kind of uncomfortable impression portrayed by Jerry Seinfeld.

However, bees “slicing chunks of meat from carcasses in tropical rainforests,” seems more like the plot to a b-grade horror movie than a scientific report. Yet here we are…

vulture bee
Image: José Reynaldo da Fonseca

Scientists have found a species of bee that eats flesh and has evolved a special gut bacteria which allows them to metabolise and survive off meat.

The scientists, coming from the University of California-Riverside, Columbia University and Cornell University, studied the gut bacteria or microbiome of the aptly named ‘vulture bees’ in Costa Rica.

The species was first identified in 1902 although they weren’t known by that name since they didn’t know at the time that this species fed on carrion (a.k.a. flesh). Researchers later noted a surprising absence of pollen on the insect.

According to a recent study, most bees are essentially “wasps that switched to a vegetarian lifestyle” however vulture bee’s, also dubbed Trigona hypogea, seemed to have decided they’d rather stick with their carnivorous ways.

Through their research, the scientist found their guts are rich in acid-loving bacteria, similar to bacteria found in vultures and hyenas.

To better understand them, the researchers set up fresh pieces of raw chicken suspended from branches as baits (also smearing the bait with petroleum jelly to help deter ants).

The baits successfully attracted the insects and other related species that feed on meat for protein.

One of the most interesting finds for the scientists was to do with their ‘baskets’.

Most stingless bees have ‘baskets’ on their hind legs which they use to help them with collecting pollen, however, the team observed the Trigona used these same ‘baskets’ to help them collect the bait.

While it’s not properly understood why they eat meat rather than reverting to pollen or how their bacteria has allowed the change, one thing is for certain: Hopefully, they’re not coming to Australia any time soon.