Vulture Bees and Evolution

Vulture Bees and Evolution - Bee in the Trigona genus
A stingless bee in the Trigona genus

One of the interesting design features that we see in the biological world is how waste material is recycled into the environment. When something dies, all of its body must return to the bio-system. Otherwise, the bodies of dead animals and plants would cover Earth’s surface. Vultures and hyenas play an essential role in recycling dead bodies. In past columns, we have written about birds that eat bones. Vulture bees are another agent that takes a dead carcass and reduces it to the elemental constituents.

We are all familiar with bees that flit from flower to flower, searching for nectar. Vulture or carrion bees are three species of stingless bees in the genus Trigona, living in the jungles of Central and South America. To prevent them from getting sick on rotting meat, they have the same gut bacteria as vultures and hyenas.

The jungle poses a different environment from open terrain. A dead animal carcass can quickly turn slimy and stinky in the warm and humid jungle environment. However, vulture bees have a digestive system that can handle any dead animal, even lizards and snakes.

Studies of the vulture bees show that they have one-third more acid-producing gut bacteria and some microbes not found in other bees. Vulture bees regurgitate some of the meat they eat into their nests, where it serves as food for young bees, and their gut bacteria prevent further decay of the meat to protect the colony.

Researchers trying to give an evolutionary explanation
to the existence of these bees face a problem. According to Science News, entomologist Jessica Maccaro of the University of California expressed it well: “It’s hard to know which evolved first – the gut bacteria or the bees’ ability to eat meat. But bees probably first turned to meat because there was so much competition for nectar for food.”

It is hard to imagine a bee choosing to eat meat to reduce competition for food. It seems more plausible that vulture bees are part of God’s designed system to recycle nutrients from dead material to protect the environment.

— John N. Claton © 2022

Reference: Science News January 29, 2022, page 4 and the American Society for Microbiology