We all have the general idea of how honey is made, right? Busy bees fly from flower to flower collecting nectar which is later turned into that magnificent golden thick liquid people use in everything from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals.
Well, there is an exception, the vulture bee?
Vulture bees don’t collect pollen and nectar from flowers. They collect meat and extrafloral nectar from plants and fruits. The vulture bee microbiome (gut bacteria) breaks down the meat protein as it is stored in the hive. They also store the honey-like sugar mix they have collected.
So, are you ready to learn some more about meat-eating bees? Stay with us as we take a good look at where vulture bees are from and how they can eat meat. Also, are they making honey, and is it edible?
Why Have You Not Heard Of Vulture Bees Before?
If you are a bee enthusiast you might be wondering why you haven’t heard about these vulture bees before? Don’t worry you’re not alone. While a vulture bee’s diet makes them stand out, many people, including bee lovers, have never heard of them. So what’s the deal?
Out of the thousands of bee species in the world, there are only three species of vulture bee:
● Trigona Hypogea
● Trigona Necrophaga
● Trigona Crassipes
The small group of stingless bee species is relatively new to the scientific world, as their unusual behavior was discovered only in 1982, almost two centuries after the official classification of bees.
There was however a study published in November 2021 from research that was done in two locations in Costa Rica where fresh pieces of raw chicken were used to observe vulture bee behavior. The study gives a lot of insight into the dietary habits of vulture bees and specifically their gut microbiomes.
For the rest of this article, we are going to discover how vulture bees live, their food sources and whether they make edible honey.
Where Do Vulture Bees Live And Do They Live In Beehives?
Vulture bees live primarily in South and North America and just like honey bees, they live in hives.
These hives are similar to those of their vegetarian cousins in that they contain hierarchical colonies including:
● Worker bees
● And young bees that must be cared for by their hive mates
Just like other hive dwelling bee species, vulture bees sometimes find their hives overcrowded. When this happens, a new queen bee takes over the hive, while the existing monarch selects a group of followers and leaves the nest forming a swarm.
What Do Vulture Bees Eat?
Even though vulture bees live in colonies just like honey bees, this species of stingless bee forages for food differently than other species of bees.
Honey bees have two primary food sources:
- Nectar from flowers
- Pollen from flowers
Honey bees suck up nectar from flowers storing the nectar in their crop (honey stomach) then passing the nectar from bee to bee in the hive before being storing the honey in wax cells. They also collect pollen in pollen baskets on their hind legs before storing this in wax cells in the hive. Pollen is the honey bees’ source of protein and nectar/honey is the carbohydrate used as their source of energy.
Vulture bees have two primary food sources as well:
- Nectar from extrafloral sources
Vulture bees get the carbohydrate through nectar/sugar from extrafloral sources like fruit or nectar secretions from glands in some plants that are often found in the tropical rainforests of South America where vulture bees typically live. The nectar is stored in special chambers in the hive which is made from wax.
Vulture bees don’t collect pollen at all, their protein supply comes from meat. These carrion-feeding bees search for animal carcasses. They use saliva to coat the meat before consuming the meat. The microbiome of the vulture bee guts is different from the honey bee it is more similar to that of actual vultures and can manage flesh digestion safely.
Once back at the hive the meat is mixed with some of the nectar and is stored in the wax pots. It is believed that a pretty remarkable change takes place. The meat breaks down into a sweet paste-type substance that serves the same purpose as bee bread in a honey bees hive. This protein-rich meaty paste is used to feed the developing larvae in the hive.
How Do Vulture Bees Chew The Meat?
During the study done in Costa Rica, 32 bait stations with chicken meat were used to simulate the dead body of an animal to attract vulture bees. The researchers observed the chunks of meat as vulture bees consumed it.
The Vulture bees don’t need to chew as such but they do use their mandibles which interestingly have an extra tooth compared to related species. They also coat the meat with their special saliva that quickly breaks down the meat, turning it into a gooey substance they can swallow.
How Do Vulture Bees Communicate?
Well, like many of their pollen-loving cousins, vulture bees use pheromones to signal that a food source has been found. Once a single bee has found a corpse, it doesn’t take long for their friends to arrive, completely covering the carcass with a swarm of busy little scavengers.
Can You Be Stung By Vulture Bees?
Vulture bees are part of the ‘Trigona’ family of bees meaning that they are stingless.
But don’t get too confident! Like most bees, vulture bees are unlikely to attack unless provoked. However, this doesn’t mean that they won’t defend themselves.
So, how do these stingless bees protect their hives? Well, members of the Trigona family are known to give a ‘painful and persistent bite’ when under attack with the potential to produce painful sores.
Can You Eat The Vulture Bees’ Honey?
Now that’s a good question! Honey made from meat isn’t good for vegetarians… but that aside, there is no evidence that vulture bee honey is toxic.
Unfortunately, we can’t find any evidence that it is safe either. As vulture bee honey isn’t farmed nor collected in the same way as the one made from nectar there is little data on its taste, texture, or whether it is, in fact, edible for humans.
And that’s probably a good thing!
You see, not only is the idea of eating honey made from rotting meat a little off-putting for most pallets, but vulture bees need all of the honey that they make for themselves.
Unlike the domesticated honey bee, and similar to other bee types, like bumblebees, vulture bees don’t make a surplus amount of honey. Instead, they create just enough to sustain their hives.
So, if you are a particularly adventurous eater, you are out of luck for this one. But don’t worry, there are plenty of weird and wonderful flavors of honey out there that won’t harm the environment or your stomach. We have put together a comprehensive list of exotic honey varieties that are worth checking out. The article is called, Honey Varieties You Should Discover.
The Wrap Up
We have discovered the following about vulture bees:
- Vulture bees are from South America but can be found in parts of North America.
- They live in hives with a queen bee.
- Vulture bees feed on dead flesh and extrafloral nectar sources.
- Their mandibles have an extra tooth compared to other types of bees.
- Before consuming the meat they coat it with saliva.
- They have gut microbes that are different from all other kinds of bees.
- Vulture bees are stingless.
- Vulture bees do make honey, however not in quantities that can be harvested.
- The honey is likey edible but nothing like honey as we know it.
Vulture bees are not the type of bee you are likely to see every day, but you never know.
Another insect that enjoys eating meat is the wasps. Check out this article we have written to find out what species you need to look out for, Do Wasps Eat Meat?