The strange bees that are carnivorous but do not sting

The secret lies in the microbiomes of the digestive system, which make them similar to real vultures, because they are carnivorous and do not sting: what do we know about these strange bees

We are used to thinking of bees as the small yellow and black insects that fly peacefully from flower to flower, carrying pollen and spreading life, and that risk extinction.

We sometimes confuse them with bumblebees, which are more aggressive and prey on them - although they have learned to defend themselves with a very special technique.

But there is a species of bee that is very different from the others: vulture bees, which are for all intents and purposes carnivorous.

How can a bee be carnivorous

Vulture bees are a species that lives mainly in Costa Rica, a small state in Central America. In order to consume meat, they have developed a set of teeth and a stomach.

This stomach, in particular, deserves attention: according to a study published in the scientific journal mBio, these bees do not share with the vulture only the name, but also some elements of the microbiome of the digestive system. This has led them to develop a high tolerance for rotting carcasses.

The Vulture Bee Study

To arrive at this result, researchers analyzed 159 bees that ate pollen, meat or both. A total of 17 species, across nine different genera. To attract them, they used animal carcasses and chicken meat as bait, in the fields of La Selva and Las Cruces in Costa Rica.

In this way, the scientists realized a peculiar behavior: it was as if the bees were shopping. In fact, they put the meat in a sort of "pocket," just as normal bees store pollen.

The main difference between vulture bees and their pollen-eating cousins lies precisely in the digestive system, and in particular in the microbiomes that form it. That of vulture bees is rich in bacteria that survive - and indeed, feed - on acidic elements. They are similar to those found in vultures, but also in other carcass-eating animals such as hyenas, and serve to protect the animal from pathogens found on rotting flesh.

Vulture bees are the only species to use a non-plant product as food, and this represents a major change in the animal's eating habits. But this is not the only difference: vulture bees in fact cannot sting. But they have other weapons of defense: they bite, of course, thanks to the teeth they have developed. But then they emit secretions that cause blisters and painful sores on the skin. Despite all this, and despite their taste for rotten meat, their honey is perfectly edible.