In April 2019, a group of scientists rode their bikes across Costa Rica’s tropical forests, dangling raw chicken portions from the trees. They were attempting to capture carrion-eating bees, a rare bug.
Large bees with long, hanging legs slowly gathered around the bait over the next five days. They crept over the folds of uncooked chicken, slicing off pieces of meat with unique teeth. They either gathered the flesh in small baskets on their hind legs, similar to how other bees gather pollen, or ingested it to store in their stomachs.
The bees were getting ready to transport the chicken back to their hives, where they would encase the meat portions in pods, leave them for two weeks, and then feed them to their young. Scientists have no idea what goes on inside the pods during those two weeks, or how it effects the meat. Adults are not need to consume protein. They eat nectar to stay alive.
Pollen is still collected by bees with leg baskets for their young. However, three species of bees, out of the more than 20,000 identified, feed their larvae solely on carrion. Vulture bees are what they’re called.
“The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have,” said Quinn S. McFrederick, one of the scientists who worked on the study. The bacteria in vulture bees’ guts also protect the bees from the pathogens in the rotten meat.
Another intriguing discovery was that, despite developing a taste for dead meat, the bees could still make pleasant and edible honey. According to scientists, the bees keep the meat in special sealed-off compartments for two weeks before accessing it, apart from where the honey is stored. The research was published in the journal mBio by the American Society of Microbiologists on November 23.