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‘Vulture’ Bees Use a Unique Tooth to Feast on Dead Flesh

Everyone knows evolution produces wonderful, brilliant lifeforms. And some seriously adorable ones. But sometimes a species needs to change in some pretty disgusting ways to adapt to its environment. The “vulture” bee is one such species as it uses a unique tooth and gut microbiome to feast on rotting flesh. Vulture bees also like to store their rotting flesh for weeks on end in little chambers right next to their honey. Because sometimes it’s the survival of the grossest.

Gizmodo recently reported on some new research into vulture bees, which a team of researchers from UC Riverside in California conducted in Costa Rica. The researchers, who published their research in the American Society of Microbiologists’ journal mBio, say they aimed to investigate the vulture bees’ microbiomes—that is, the makeup of microorganisms in the bees’ guts—to see how “extreme diet switches” happen.

Quinn McFrederick/UCR

To attract the vulture bees—a.k.a. carrion bees—the researchers set up pieces of raw chicken in the forest. When the bees arrived, they not only swarmed the raw, dead flesh, but also collected bits of it. The vulture bees, which are stingless, used their hind legs for collecting the chicken; a surprise considering other carrion-feeding bees use their hind legs to collect pollen. “They had little chicken baskets,” UCR entomologist Quinn McFrederick said in a press release.

As for the vulture bees’ actual microbiomes, the researchers found they had guts rich with Lactobacillus; a genus of bacteria that is often present in fermented foods humans eat, such as sourdough. The researchers also found Carnobacterium, a bacteria associated with flesh digestion. Together, the bacteria allow the bees to “eat dead bodies,” which is impressive considering all of the microbes releasing toxins on their food’s skin.

L.L.Figueroa/McFrederick et al./mBio

“The vulture bee microbiome [has] acid-loving bacteria, which are novel bacteria that their relatives don’t have,” McFrederick added in the press release. “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.”

Along with eating dead flesh, some vulture bees also bite; releasing blister-causing secretions in their jaws when they do. A secretion that can cause skin to erupt in painful sores. Also: vulture bees, much like maggots, usually enter their carcasses through the eyes. A fact that has nothing to do with this research. But is a reminder of how gross evolution can go.

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