Super Tiny Steaks
September 3, 2019 3:30 PM   Subscribe

Surprise: Bees Need Meat "Ask an entomologist what makes a bee a bee, and you’ll likely get some version of “bees are just wasps that went vegetarian.” New research shows that isn’t true. Bees are actually omnivores, and their meat is microbes. This finding may open a new window on why bees are in trouble: Anything that disrupts the microbial community in a bee’s food, whether it is high heat linked to climate change, fungicides or another stressor, could be causing developing bees to starve."

"For most people, the idea that microorganisms can qualify as meat is radical. In the past four years, Steffan and his colleagues, including Dharampal, have published a series of papers laying out their evidence that microbes are an important part of a variety of food webs, including those that involve bees. Their findings confirm that fungi, bacteria and other microscopic players can fit anywhere in the food web, upending our vision of predator and prey, carnivore and herbivore—and what makes a bee a bee."
posted by stoneweaver (37 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
[Link hopefully fixed!]
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:39 PM on September 3, 2019

posted by whimsicalnymph at 3:53 PM on September 3, 2019

Most everybody is an omnivore when it comes down to it:

There are bona fide largely vegetarian spiders though, they mug ants who have harvested specialized food nuggets from plants.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:10 PM on September 3, 2019 [7 favorites]

Every animal needs a certain amount of protein every day to repair cells, and protein is expensive to make. So it's not surprising that nearly all will scavenge available protein if they are running short. Most grazers certainly will -- it used to be that it was thought the destruction of ground-nesting bird eggs and nestlings was just accidental, but in fact it's usually deliberate predation.
posted by tavella at 4:50 PM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Most everybody is an omnivore when it comes down to it

People think of hummingbirds as nectar feeders, but what do they feed their nestlings? Bugs. They got to have that protein.
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:54 PM on September 3, 2019 [14 favorites]

That's really out-of-the-box thinking - thanks stoneweaver. Microbes acting as an external 'rumen' is mind-blowing. Takes out-sourcing to a new (and very ancient) level.

We are profoundly messing with our planet's systems by treating it as a dump; assuming our chemicals cause no harm; and suppressing research if we think (or know) they may harm other life for instance on google schollar try - glyphosate "cytochrome P450" - and also look into cytochrome P450 and it's role in human digestion and invertebrate systems generally. And this is just one human chemical.

I used to be a herbicide contractor but this is genuinely frightening stuff.
posted by unearthed at 4:55 PM on September 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

Your bee wants steak.
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 5:44 PM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

i want to have a tiny bbq for bees, i want to make them tiny steaks
posted by poffin boffin at 6:03 PM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

You mean... A Bee B B Q?
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 6:14 PM on September 3, 2019 [10 favorites]

Are pollen microbes metazoans? It seems like all the papers care about is the bees are eating non-autotrophs, but I don't think it should count as meat unless it's actually from Animalia.

(This has come up before. Ryan North spent some time trying to convince people bread was meat based, due to the dead eukaryotic yeast which he thought of as little animals, but I think he backed off.)
posted by mark k at 6:14 PM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I mean, if we're using that metric of carnivory, orchids are all obligate carnivores.

(Most people talk about them like they're parasites, but are you a parasite if you're feeding off a whole bunch of far smaller fungi that think they're participating in a mutualistic response but actually you're just eating them? Inquiring minds want to know.)
posted by sciatrix at 6:19 PM on September 3, 2019 [16 favorites]

I think there's something really interesting here in terms of the energy flows within the ecosystem and the impact of microorganisms on that but I can't get over the throwing around of "wow, bees eat meat! bees are actually carnivores!"

An ecologist can correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think that even in this context, the word "meat" means "matter coming from a non-autotrophic organism." There's more to it than that. For example how do non-autotrophic microorganisms compare with insects or metazoans in terms of the amount of prey they consume? My impression was that microbes are a lot more efficient than your average bear (in terms of the amount consumed - amount of waste). Which is part of the deal with carnivores: the number of joules of sunlight that goes into feeding them is way more than organisms lower down the food web.

I'm sure I am not the first to think of this, and I should probably go read the scientists' papers.
posted by quaking fajita at 6:36 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

posted by grumpybear69 at 6:39 PM on September 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Eric only wants a half-serving...
posted by hippybear at 7:14 PM on September 3, 2019 [14 favorites]

Well we know what our fate will be now when the DARPA mad scientists turn the GIGANTO-RAY on a hive of bumble bees.
posted by sammyo at 7:27 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

And-Man 3: Bees Need Meat, featuring a poster of the kids riding the bee scene from Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:54 PM on September 3, 2019

sciatrix, I think you just described late capitalism
posted by a halcyon day at 7:59 PM on September 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

I thought this was a post about meat bees, which I guess are actually yellowjackets and not really bees after all. I've spent more than one pleasant afternoon picnicking with meat bees; it's fascinating to watch them land on your sandwich, slice off an unsettlingly large slab of turkey, and wobble off into the air with it.

But I think we all already knew that yellowjackets were badass. Learning that actual bees have been eating flower meat all along is both delightful and unsettling. EVERYTHING is secretly amazing!
posted by DingoMutt at 8:10 PM on September 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

You know, that's a surprisingly apt metaphor for an orchid : an organism that sometimes deigns to bloom and set forth a delicate, beautiful flower, but more often sulks beneath the surface of the ground, a hulking tuber that hoards resources that it steals from symbiotic fungi.

And like the corporation, the orchid has its defenders: humans who like to coax the orchid into blooming argue vehemently that the orchid is not a parasite at all because it does not prey on the visible, pretty other plants that the hobbyist listens to. The effect on the mutualistic fungi is apparently immaterial, and must be carefully hidden from the minds of the casual orchid fancier. And of course even the seemingly prosocial act of pollination is often twisted by the orchid, which sometimes designs its flowers not to pay pollinators in pollen and nectar to eat but instead to trick them into unsatisfying interactions with simulacra of themselves. The orchid is a cheat and a liar among plants. What better metaphor is there?
posted by sciatrix at 8:21 PM on September 3, 2019 [15 favorites]

Microbes are meat now?
posted by Chaffinch at 12:03 AM on September 4, 2019

I opened this thread expecting to be horrified by bees. I did not expect to be horrified by orchids instead.

The fungal hyphae get *inside the cells* of the orchid. Eeyeck.
posted by nat at 1:53 AM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wait a minute. Do the bees depend on ingesting the bacteria, or do they simply require that bacteria break down the pollen that they ingest? I mean, cows surely digest a lot of bacteria too, and we still call them vegetarian.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:54 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

The experiment involved sterilizing the pollen fed to bee larvae. But sterilizing doesn't remove microbes, it just kills them. The result means that bees need live microbes for digestion, the same way we and other species need microbes for digestion. Carnivores eat dead meat to break down into nutrients, so it seems a stretch to call bees carnivores.
posted by Miss Cellania at 3:30 AM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

Years ago I was living in a low-population county in NE Missouri. One of my pursuits was propagating native tall-grass prairie plants. I had a few Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea) shrubs growing near the house. I noticed that hummingbirds flocked around that plant when it was in bloom. I assumed that they were after nectar, but eventually I learned that the hummingbirds were really feeding on small flies which were sucking nectar. Protein for their young!
posted by Agave at 4:21 AM on September 4, 2019

Microbes are meat now?

Judging by the amount of chicken shit he will consume if he thinks nobody's watching, my dog has apparently held that opinion for years. Which fact I find disturbing every time he succeeds in one of his interminable attempts to lick my face. It's a circle of life thing, it's a beautiful thing...
posted by flabdablet at 4:48 AM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

"Vegetarianism is the first turning away from life. Life feeds on life. They are just eating things that can't run away..." ~ Joseph Campbell
posted by DJZouke at 5:19 AM on September 4, 2019

Do you call mushrooms meat? No? I rest my case.

Some people think words can mean anything they want them too, sheesh.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:45 AM on September 4, 2019

I think almost everyone would define meat as only coming from animals. That's certainly how I would define it. The article mentions fungal and bacterial microbes, which I would by no means consider meat.
posted by starfishprime at 5:45 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

in ancient schema, even fish weren't meat.

I have had the worry: I have a sourdough starter that is bacterial, we call it "the monster". When a vegan friend visited, I had to think twice about whether I could serve her scones made with it ... of course, I could. But I had to think about it.
posted by jb at 6:24 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sort of tangent to the article: the idea that bees were either partially carnivorous, or were spontaneously generated from rotting meat, was a popular idea in the ancient world.

Virgil has the first beekeeper (Aristaeus: son of Apollo, would-be rapist of Eurydice, father of Actaeon) leave animal carcasses out for bees to build their hives in. (It's a sacrifice to placate Eurydice, who has killed all of Aristaeus's bees.)

Antigonus of Carystus, apparently, says that the Egyptians bury oxen with their horns sticking out of the ground; when you saw the horns off later, bees come out.

And there's the story about Samson in the Old Testament, of course.

Lots of people think that this comes from ancient people mistaking wasps for bees. I don't know; if we can tell honeybees from wasps, why do we think our ancestors couldn't?

In South America, there are what are called "vulture bees," or "carrion bees." Instead of getting their protein from pollen, they get it from dead animals. They chew the meat and bring it back to their hives and break it down with enzymes. NYT, in 1982, has it that they make this meat into meat honey; the Wikipedia article first says they make honey from nectar, and then goes on to contradict itself by suggesting that they don't; that their honey is, actually, made out of meat.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 6:25 AM on September 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

We've only just begun to scratch the surface of how important microbial communities are to sustaining human health; it's interesting that microbes are critical for bees as well. Calling bees omnivores might be a stretch, but I do think it's a useful way to provoke people into thinking about how microbes fit into food webs.

And on that note: there are as many or more bacterial cells in your body as there are human cells. So it's not just you enjoying that steak, omnivores. Your microbial half is enjoying its benefits, too.
posted by Westringia F. at 6:49 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

There actually are bees that eat meat: Vulture bees, real honest meat-eating bees. To say that because honeybees - or any other kind of bee - are into artisanal homebrew pollen kombucha they are carnivores. . . seems kind of lousy.
posted by os tuberoes at 7:46 AM on September 4, 2019 [6 favorites]

As a beekeeper, I always understood this relationship of bees to pollen to be more like humans eating sourdough break or fermenting miso rather than carving off a flank of beef for a tasty t-bone.
posted by ikahime at 8:47 AM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Drrrr, bread.
posted by ikahime at 8:57 AM on September 4, 2019

but really, no discussion of apiarian carnivory is complete without invoking both Nicholas Cage and Tony Todd
posted by what does it eat, light? at 12:09 PM on September 4, 2019

I thought it was pretty well established that bees cannibalize their larvae when other protein sources are in short supply. That study is from 2001 but I think this has been a known thing for much longer.

When I was learning to keep bees we were taught to destroy clusters of male brood in the late summer and fall, because male bees don't work and can be a drain on the hive's winter stockpile. The way we did it was just by scraping a tool over the capped brood and then replacing the frame inside the hive, and our teacher told us that the bees would eat the resulting goo and make use of the reclaimed protein.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:22 PM on September 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

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