Meat Honey: Vulture Bees Feed on Rotting Meat Instead of Nectar, And Yes, Their Honey Is Edible

We’ve all eaten honey at some point in our lives, but this thing is something different. The nectar has been swapped for meat.

To identify what bacteria lives in the stomachs of vulture bees and how it compares to other bee species, researchers set up 16 bait stations with roughly two ounces of raw chicken hung from branches 4.9 feet off the ground. Quinn McFrederick/University of California-Riverside

We all tend to take it for granted that honey is made by bees going from flower to flower collecting nectar, and then transforming it into the golden liquid we love so much.

But there come vulture bees. These little animals have swapped nectar for meat to make their own, rather creepy but edible, honey!

Just like their namesake, vulture bees have a taste for animal carcasses (and so are also called “carrion bees”). In Costa Rica’s rainforests, these meat-eating bees (Trigona – meaning they lack a stinger) are not different from their “normal” bee counterparts inasmuch as they will slurp on sugar from fruit or sip nectar from stems and leaves. However, microbes in their gut microbiomes prefer carrion over pollen as a protein source, Popular Science reports.

Image credit: José Reynaldo da Fonseca

Carrion-loving bees have dramatically different microbiomes compared to vegetarian ones, according to a new study just published in the microbiology journal mBio. The vegetarian stingless bees, honeybees and bumblebees examined all contained the same five microbes in their guts. However, vulture bees’ stomachs were riddled with specialized acid-loving bacteria allowing them to digest meat without getting sick from the toxins forming on rotting flesh.

The carnivorous tendencies of these bees were first observed in 1982 by entomologist David Roubik while studying them at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. So far, only three vulture bee species are known to exist.

Roubik found that vulture bees do not have any other source of protein apart from meat, and their legs also do not have as many hairs to collect pollen as vegetarian bees do. When scientists analyzed the honey stored in the carrion bees’ hives, they did not find any pollen grains. Instead of transporting pollen, vulture bees partly digest the meat gathered and take it to the nest where it is then regurgitated for other bees.

“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,” study coauthor Doug Yanega, an entomologist at the University of California-Riverside (UCR), told Ars Technica.

While most bee species have saddle bag–like structures on their legs for carrying pollen, vulture bees use much smaller leg baskets to carry meat back to their hives. To fill those small pockets efficiently, they have a unique set of teeth with which to cut the meat up. Once the bits of meat are taken to the hive, they are stored by the bees in small pods, and are left to cure for two weeks before being fed to their larvae.

Researchers extracted DNA from the vulture bees’ abdomen to identify what bacteria thrives in them and how they compare to other bee species. They found that vulture bees’ guts had a specialized cocktail of the acid-producing bacteria Lactobacillus, which may create a more acidic environment in their guts to fight off pathogens that develop on carrion. These acid-producing microbes are also found in the stomachs of other meat-loving animals, like hyenas and vultures.

“We hypothesize that the bees are using those acid-producing bacteria to acidify their gut,” Jessica Maccaro, co-author of the study and graduate student at UCR, told Popular Science. “They get these pathogens which infect them through their gut. So they have all these Lactobacillus in there that will acidify the gut—and that literally pickle the pathogen.”

Some pockets of meat honey for you. Image credit: WikiWand

OK, but is the vulture honey edible?

Technically, yes it is. The human digestive system has the enzymes needed to successfully break down the complex compounds in a vulture bees’ honey. According to reports, the flavor of this honey-resembling substance is described as intense, smokey, and salty, or uniquely sweet. That said, the honey is stickier than the one you’re probably used to – it’s rather viscous in fact, and tends to be extremely hard to collect.

One more thing: vulture bees do not tend to make any surplus honey. This means if you do manage to successfully extract some honey from them, their young would have nothing to eat and would die.

That’s a very important reason why we should leave vulture bees alone to consume their meat honey.

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