By Annette J Beveridge
There are approximately 20,000 species of bee worldwide and most will search for pollen and nectar but some bees actively seek out rotting flesh instead. Vulture bees (also known as carrion bees) form a select group of three and belong to the genus Trigona.
They live in tropical rainforests and use pheromones to signal a source of food to others. Bees respond to this signal swarming to the carcass where they can be seen covering the flesh with saliva. It may sound gruesome but it has proven of great interest to the science world since this behaviour was first discovered in 1982. These are stingless bees living primarily in South and North America.
Research into vulture bees
For approximately 80 million years, stingless bees, bumblebees, and honey bees have shared five core microbes within the gut. A recent study in Costa Rica examined how vulture bees are different. Researchers arranged 16 test stations and attached 1.8 oz of raw chicken to them. They monitored these stations watching as vulture bees crawled over the chicken and used an additional tooth on the mandible to slice off meat. They store meat in the same leg pouches where other bees store pollen. 159 bees were studied and included those that feed just on meat and pollen and those that only feed on nectar and pollen.
In the gut of vulture bees, researchers found that some of the core microbes were missing and the gut was more acidic which is similar to carrion-feeders. This alteration to the gut may help to protect vulture bees from other pathogens. Lactobacillus in the gut helps to ferment food and carnobacterium aids flesh digestion.
Vulture bees gain carbohydrates through fruit or nectar secretions from plant glands close to the hive and nectar is stored in chambers within. The protein in the diet comes from meat. Once on a carcass, the bee’s saliva turns the flesh into a soft, easy-to-swallow substance. This substance is secreted back at the colony and mixed with nectar or sugar and sealed. After 14 days, it is fed to the young bees.
Vulture bees live in hives containing the queen, drones and worker bees. If the hive becomes too crowded, a new Queen takes over and the existing queen must leave, selecting some followers to join her when starting a new hive. These bees cannot sting but are capable of defending themselves through a painful bite.