Some tropical bees have recently turned into vultures, a new study has claimed. A US scientific team travelled to Costa Rica and discovered unique gut microbes allowing bees to digest dead animals? meat instead of flower nectar.
"These are the only bees in the world that have evolved to use food sources not produced by plants, which is a pretty remarkable change in dietary habits," said University of California, Riverside entomologist Doug Yanega in a press release that was published on Tuesday.
According to the scientists, the unexpected change in the insects' food preferences might be explained by "intense competition for nectar."
In the process of their research in Costa Rica, the entomologists analyzed and compared the microbiomes of vulture stingless bees with microbiomes of those of their relatives who feed both on meat and flowers, and those who feed exclusively on pollen. They discovered the most extreme changes, such as the presence of some novel bacteria, among exclusive meat-feeders whom they fed raw chicken.
"The vulture bee microbiome is enriched in acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don't have," UCR entomologist Quinn McFrederick said. "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."
The researchers noted that though vulture bees can't sting, many of them are "thoroughly unpleasant." Some of them produce blister-causing secretions that might cause painful sores. However, these bees' honey is sweet and edible, claim the scientists.
"They store the meat in special chambers that are sealed off for two weeks before they access it, and these chambers are separate from where the honey is stored," Maccaro explained.
The scientific team has published the study in the American Society of Microbiologists journal mBio and plans to continue research.