When people who hate insects think of their worst nightmare, “flesh-eating bees” might be something that comes to mind. But, what if there is such a thing, and what if this bee was completely harmless to humans? Even further, what if this said bee also had the capacity to produce honey commercially?
Vulture bees are precisely that. Coming from the genus Trigona, or stingless bees, the three species of vulture bees live throughout the Americas. Originally discovered in Central America by a scientist studying other stingless bees, vulture bees are a unique variety of bees that differ from other species in strange ways.
Let’s back up: did you see the words stingless bees? Yes, you read that correctly – some bees are incapable of stinging.
Unfortunately, these bees only live in tropical and subtropical regions of the world and aren’t as widespread as the typical honeybee. The stingless bee is similar to regular honey bees in that they have a beehive social caste and produce honey but differ in their behaviour and location.
Vulture bees make up only three species of the 550 currently described stingless bees. Most scientists would remark that this number may be temporary, as the first in-depth research only dates back to 1982.
Scientist Dr. David Roubik discovered the bees’ unique behaviour by dissecting their hives and noticing the lack of pollen grains. Since this is usually the primary food source for young honey bees, Dr. Roubik began investigating how they replaced this vital protein source.
Why Do They Eat Meat?
Although their specific evolutionary story hasn’t been revealed yet, the reason for vulture bees’ scavenging behavior is similar to why honey bees collect pollen.
Honey bees use pollen as the primary source of protein for their young. Hives usually contain pollen stores, where honey bees will regularly access to feed their young. This source of food provides the young with protein and vital fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Vulture bees have adapted to using meat as a food source for their young to replace pollen. One of the ways Dr. Roubik discovered this changed behaviour is through examining the lack of hairy “honey baskets” on their hind legs that honey bees usually have to pick up pollen.
He also found that these bees have no pollen stores in their hive, where pollen is usually stored for later use.
However, both types of bees still use nectar to produce honey. Honey from both vulture & honey bees provides the whole hive with energy to maintain the colony. Because it is primarily made out of glucose and fructose, honey is a rich source of carbohydrates for the bees.
How Vulture Bees Eat Meat
From his original study, Dr. Roubik found that the vulture bees were ingesting meat from carrion (or dead animal matter) and processing it, similar to how honey bees process pollen grains. Since they are obligate necrophages, they don’t find protein through any other means – making flesh one of their primary food sources.
Finding the meat
Unlike how it sounds, these flesh-eating bees are not roaming around looking for live animals to take a juicy bite out of. Just like their name vulture suggests, they feed on the flesh of dead, rotting animals. However, they are very picky about how long the animal has been dead. If there is a rotting scent around the meat or it has been decaying for too long, the bees will move on.
The scout bee’s job is to search for dead meat close in proximity to their hive. It is because of their keen sense of smell that they can detect decaying carcasses.
Once the carcass is spotted, the scout bee marks the dead animal and the trail to the carcass with pheromones. These pheromones are chemical messages that communicate to the hive that food has been found and directs the other bees to the food.
Once the scout bee marks the carcass, the other forager bees travel along the trail and get to work. Researchers found that in good conditions, the forager bees arrive approximately 20-120 min after the original pheromone marking.
Additionally, there were on average 40-108 bees on one carcass at a time. This speedy turnover rate and the vast number of foragers is a means to outcompete other scavengers.
Eating the meat
Because they don’t have large teeth like predatory animals, the bees have to enter the body through an open cavity: eyes, mouth, nose, etc. Once in the animal’s body, they bite off tiny chunks of the flesh using their mandible’s five sharp tooth-like points.
Vulture bees digest the food by spitting up saliva-coated in digestive sugars onto the meat and storing it in a “honey stomach” in their body. Here, the meat continues to digest. After accumulating a sufficient amount of meat, the bee will travel back to the hive for further processing.
Processing the meat
Back at the nest, worker bees continue to process the meat by chewing the saliva food mixture until it becomes thick. Once it’s turned into a thick, goo-like consistency, it is then stored for the use of the young bees in the hive.
Vulture bees contain vital adaptations that allow them to consume raw meat safely. As mentioned previously, one of these adaptations is the lack of “pollen baskets” on their hind legs, which allow them for lighter, faster flight. They also have sharp, tooth-like mandibles that give them the ability to grab off chunks of flesh.
However, the vulture bee developed another adaptation to safely consume the meat without giving the hive a fungal or bacterial disease. Scientists believe that within their saliva secretions, they produce an antibiotic compound. This compound, sourced from their rich gut microflora, likely enables the bee to safely consume and store the raw meat without severe consequences.
Vulture Bee Honey
Although other stingless bees have honey that is said to have wound-healing properties, farming vulture bee honey is not currently practiced. Mainly because of their recent discovery and lack of research, there is concern that this honey may not be safe.
Original research did not reveal any apparent toxicity and even remarked at its sweet and clear traits. However, because it is made and stored in proximity to flesh, scientists are sceptical of its commercial use.
More than that, vulture bees’ use of honey differs from the honey bee. While the honey bee produces excess honey for storage and winter use, the vulture bee only creates enough to sustain the hive. In addition, since they are only known to live in subtropical and tropical areas, they don’t need to produce enough to survive winter.
Are Vulture Bees Dangerous?
Although vulture bees can’t sting, their sharp tooth-like points allow them to give a painful bite. Other stingless bees are known to bite a predator or threat vigorously. If the threat is big enough, the stingless bee’s bite is so hard that it usually causes physical damage to the bee, and they die.
Because of this reason, it is very improbable that a vulture bee will attack.
Vulture bees are stingless scavenger bees found in Central and South America. They utilize freshly dead animal carcasses as their primary source of protein and for the development of their young. They are able to find meat through their fantastic sense of smell. Once found, they communicate the location to the hive through a chemical message called a pheromone.
The vulture bees are able to eat the meat through the use of their digestive saliva and their five sharp, tooth-like points on their mandibles. Once the bees bring the meat back to the hive, it is processed further by worker bees and stored for it is needed by their young.
Vulture bees also produce honey in the same way that other stingless and honey bees do. However, this honey is not currently commercially produced as it has not been concluded if it is safe or not. However, scientists speculate that the honey may contain antibiotic and wound healing properties.
Vulture bees are not able to sting, but they do pack a powerful bite. Because they usually die after biting, they aren’t usually a threat to humans unless provoked.