UMass Amherst research shows “vulture bees” feast on non-plant protein
Springtime: bees buzz from flower to flower, searching for nectar. But not these bees. The “vulture bee,” a little-known tropical species, has evolved an extra tooth for biting flesh and a gut that more closely resembles that of carrion-loving birds.
“We know very little about these fascinating creatures. These bees have ditched flowers and now rely exclusively on fresh carcasses for their protein” said Laura Figueroa, a UMass Pathways Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Conservation.
In a paper recently published in mBio, lead author Figueroa and her co-authors from the University of California, Riverside, traveled to Costa Rica, set up baits — fresh pieces of raw chicken hung from branches — and then examined the bees drawn by the raw animal flesh. Normally, stingless bees have baskets on their hind legs for collecting pollen. However, the team observed carrion-feeding bees using those same structures to collect the bait. “They had little chicken baskets,” said Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at UC Riverside and one of the paper’s co-authors.
When the team examined the bees’ microbiome, they discovered the presence of bacteria normally associated with vultures, hyenas, and other animals that feed on carrion, as well as lactobacillus and carnobacterium, which is associated with flesh digestion. They also discovered that the vulture bees lacked some of the microbes commonly associated with their vegetarian cousins.
Taken together, the research is a step forward in understanding how microbiome and diet are intricately linked, which in turn helps us understand the role that microbes play in the health of animal species, both vertebrate and invertebrate, around the world.
Figueroa and company’s research has already garnered a great deal of press, but this is just the beginning. “We can’t wait to get back out in the field and continue learning more about the biology and evolution of these unique bees and the cool microbes they carry,” she said.