Can’t Bee-t Meat: Bees Feasting on Rotting Flesh Mystify Scientists

  • They might not sting, but we’d rather not go anywhere near these bees.

Bees — you know ‘em, you love ‘em. They’re good little guys, always buzzing around, slurping up nectar from flowers, and making honey.

Unless they’re vulture bees. Then they’ll prefer a nice chunk of flesh to a colorful flower.

Jessica Maccaro is a PhD student in entomology at University of California, Riverside (UCR), who recently published a new study on vulture bees. In an interview with Insider, she used the highly scientific term “super crazy” to describe these buzzers.

“The easiest way to think about bees is that they are vegetarian wasps. They evolved from wasps. Literally what differentiates them from wasps has been that they’re vegetarian,” Maccaro said.

Vulture bees, however, tell you to stick your bee stereotypes where the sun doesn’t shine. And even though we call know wasps are complete psychos, the vulture bees are even more hardcore.

Maccaro explained that even wasps want their meat fresh. Vulture bees, however, demand to have their steak nicely rotted.

If you serve them meat that’s not sufficiently decomposed, they will make it rot themselves. Oh yeah, and the adult bees don’t eat the meat — they feed it to their babies.

Photos: University of California, Riverside.

Meaty Honey

It’s not weird enough that these bees consume meat from rotted carcasses. What’s even more amazing is that they stay alive while doing so, said Maccaro.

“The environment on a dead body is really toxic. That’s a major thing to overcome to be able to eat,” she explained.

Naturally, the bees’ lifestyle brought up the question of how exactly do they keep it up. To find the answer, Maccaro and her team ventured into the jungles of Costa Rica.

There, they left chunks of raw chicken hanging from trees. And sure enough, in a couple of days the chicken pieces started attracting the long-legged, stingless vulture bees.

The bees have pouches on their back legs, just like normal bees. But instead of stuffing their little baskets full of pollen, they filled them with chunks of chicken.

“They had little chicken baskets,” said Quinn McFrederick, a UCR entomologist, in a press release.

Some individuals didn’t bother with the baskets, though. They just swallowed whatever they could chew off.

The bees then returned to their nest, where they vomited up their cargo and stuffed it into specialized pods. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what happens to the meat in those pods. But they do know that it comes out two weeks later as a honey-like viscous sludge.

The difference is that instead of yummy nectar, this honey is made of decomposed flesh. You probably don’t want to add that to your cup of tea.

More Than Just a Name

The scientists had another motive with their chicken baits apart from just offering the bees a dinner, though. They collected some of them to study their guts and see what makes them tick.

To see exactly how unique vulture bees are, the researchers also caught some regular old-fashioned honey bees and some that feed on both meat and pollen. And sure enough, there was quite a difference.

According to McFrederick, the vulture bees’ insides are full of acid-producing bacteria, like lactobacillus and carnobacterium.

“These bacteria are similar to ones found in actual vultures, as well as hyenas and other carrion-feeders, presumably to help protect them from pathogens that show up on carrion,” he said.

So, vulture bees share more with the birds than just the name. It makes sense, though — as Maccaro pointed out, the decomposed meat would quickly kill them without the extra layer of protection.

“We already can see that the microbiome is super important for bees for all these basic functions that we [humans] usually just kind of do ourselves,” said Maccaro.

The researchers have now solved the mystery of how the bees can stomach their meat. But there’s another mystery that needs solving.

What exactly happens in those pods over the two weeks the meat sits in there? And why can’t the bees eat the meat when it’s fresh?

“They store [the meat] and they seal [the pods] and they don’t touch them for two weeks, and then they can eat the meat. We’re really curious about what’s happening,” Maccaro said.

To find the answers, Maccaro and her team are now planning a trip to French Guiana. We’ll update you on that once they find something out.