A group of scientists biked around Costa Rica’s tropical forests, hanging chunks of raw chicken from the trees, in April 2019. They were trying to catch a rare insect: carrion-eating bees.
Slowly, over the next five days, large bees with long, dangling legs flocked to the bait. They crawled over the folds of raw chicken, using special teeth to slice off bits of meat. They gathered the flesh in little baskets on their hind legs, where other bees collect pollen, or swallowed the meat to store in their stomachs.
The bees were preparing to carry the chicken back to their hives, where they would enclose the meat chunks in pods, leave them there for two weeks, then feed them to their babies. Scientists aren’t sure what happens inside the pods during those two weeks, or how it affects the meat. The adults don’t need to eat protein. They survive on nectar.
The bees with leg baskets still collect pollen for their babies, too. But three species — out of more than 20,000 known bee species — feed their larvae an entirely carrion-based diet. They’re called “vulture bees.”
These bees are “super crazy on a bunch of different levels,” Jessica Maccaro, a doctoral student in entomology at University of California, Riverside (UCR), told Insider.
“The easiest way to think about bees is that they are vegetarian wasps. They evolved from wasps. Literally what differentiates them from wasps has been that they’re vegetarian,” Maccaro said. “So this is really surprising.”
Even wasps eat freshly killed meat, though. Rotting flesh can be a minefield of diseases, as microbes overtake the body and wage “microbial warfare,” producing powerful toxins as they compete for meat. Some of the bacteria itself, like salmonella, can be deadly.
“The environment on a dead body is really toxic,” Maccaro said. “That’s a major thing to overcome to be able to eat.”
That’s why Maccaro’s colleagues were baiting and capturing these mysterious bees — to study the microbes in their guts and learn how they’re able to eat carrion. Sure enough, the researchers discovered that vulture bees’ guts may be more like actual vultures or hyenas than their pollen-gathering relatives. They published their findings in mBio, the journal of the American Society of Microbiologists, on Tuesday.
“The weird things in the world are where a lot of interesting discoveries can be found,” Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at UCR who led the research, said in a press release. “There’s a lot of insight there into the outcomes of natural selection.”
Gut bacteria may help vulture bees fight pathogens on rotting meat
The chicken bait attracted an array of bees — one species that only collects meat, and several that collect both meat and pollen.
Separately, the researchers also captured some bees that only feed on pollen. That allowed them to compare the guts of carnivorous, omnivorous, and vegetarian bees.
The microbes in those guts were quite different. The vulture bees had lots of acid-producing bacteria like lactobacillus, probably creating a far more acidic gut than their pollen-eating cousins. That might help them fight toxins that form on rotting flesh.
“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,” McFrederick said in the press release.
Vultures and hyenas produce much of their guts’ acid on their own, instead of relying on microbes. But the vulture bees’ dependence on bacteria is no suprise to Maccaro. Many kinds of bees use microbes to line their guts, protect them from parasites, and break down their food.
“We already can see that the microbiome is super important for bees for all these basic functions that we [humans] usually just kind of do ourselves,” Maccaro said. “So this is another case, where they’re using their microbiome to create this acidic environment rather than doing it themselves.”
Maccaro and her colleagues hope to collect bees in French Guiana next, where they can find two of the three bee species that only gather carrion. They want to study what happens in the pods where the vulture bees store meat before feeding it to their larvae.
“They store them and they seal them and they don’t touch them for two weeks, and then they can eat the meat,” Maccaro said. “We’re really curious about what’s happening.”
Sign up for notifications from Insider! Stay up to date with what you want to know.
Subscribe to push notifications
An icon in the shape of a lightning bolt.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is just going to get busier shuttling astronauts in the coming years.
NASA announced it intends to issue a sole-source modification to SpaceX’s long-term contract to send astronauts to the International Space Station. This follows an agency call for proposals back in October for more flight options to send people to space.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is the other major system, is not quite yet ready for humans following a difficult uncrewed test flight in 2019 that never saw the spacecraft reach the ISS. Starliner has spent some time fixing computer glitches and other issues (including a valve problem that delayed an expected 2021 launch) and is now expecting a second uncrewed test flight by 2022.
The October solicitation, NASA noted, confirms SpaceX is the only viable choice for the time being, given the agency’s safety requirements and the need to keep the space station staffed continuously in the coming years.
“It’s critical we begin to secure additional flights to the space station now so we are ready as these missions are needed to maintain a U.S. presence on station,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator of NASA’s space 0perations mission directorate, said in a blog post. “Our U.S. human launch capability is essential to our continued safe operations in orbit and to building our low-Earth orbit economy.”
NASA stated it would use these new flights “as early as 2023”, and that the contract (in securing flights and allowing the agency to task personnel elsewhere) will help them get Boeing’s Starliner system ready to fly astronauts once it’s been certified.
“NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner’s next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA, in the same statement.
The latest issue holding up the flight was an oxidizer isolation valve that was found in August, and NASA and Boeing together elected to pull the spacecraft back to the hanger to figure out how to fix the issue before sending the spacecraft aloft.
Another pressing issue for NASA’s future will be extending the planned retirement of the ISS from 2024 to at least 2028, which the agency has said for years it wants to do. It is in negotiations with Congress and with its international partners to do this, and in the meantime, last week the agency also announced it has secured three early-stage contracts for future private space stations to fly late in the 2020s.
For the first time ever, NASA and the Canadian Space Agency hosted the Deep Space Food Challenge.
The competition brought universities and companies together to propose solutions on how to feed astronauts on a long mission. Last month, NASA announced that the winners and one of the international winners of the Phase 1 competition came from a group of students in a university in South America.
In a scrubby patch of forest near Halifax, Saint Mary’s University professor Linda Campbell and her master’s student, Michael Smith, squelch through mud, looking for lichens. The lichens they’re after can be used as natural biological monitors of pollutants from former gold-mining sites, like this one.
Smith lifts one piece from a branch. It’s usnea, or beard lichen, which the researchers can use to assess levels of arsenic and mercury in the air. That’s because it absorbs nutrients — and pollutants, if they’re present — from the atmosphere rather than through roots.
Campbell notes that there were once industrial devices used to crush gold-bearing ore at the site where this lichen is now growing. The lichen is absorbing mercury initially released from the ore many years ago, that is still percolating out into the environment. “What took place 100 years ago is still being reflected in the lichen,” she said.
Campbell is a freshwater ecologist — one of a handful of experts in Canada who’s studied how contaminants move through ecosystems, and how to deal with them.
But she’s also part of another minority. Campbell is Deaf, and uses American Sign Language, or ASL, making her part of a group that continues to be underrepresented in science.
WATCH | ASL interpretation of Quirks & Quarks’ Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing documentary:
American Sign Language interpretation of Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing , a radio documentary from Quirks & Quarks about the underrepresentation of deaf researchers in science, and how they’re bringing their unique perspective to the lab and the field. 20:39
Transcriptof Quirks & Quarks’ Deaf in science: Beyond the range of hearing documentary
A report from earlier this year by the Royal Society in the U.K., for instance, noted that while about one per cent of the population is deaf, the percentage of STEM undergraduates in that country who are deaf has stagnated at just 0.3 per cent for the past decade. And, a 2017 U.S. study by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes found that, overall, Deaf people obtain lower levels of education than their hearing peers.
In Canada, there is little formal data, but, anecdotally, Campbell knows of only five other deaf STEM university faculty members.
Campbell attributes the underrepresentation to barriers erected by attitudes among hearing people.
“When science looks at that as an added cost, and added labour, to include people with disabilities, they’re not recognizing the differences and the successes that can be brought — that diverse thinking can be successful.”
Barriers rooted in education
Alex Lu recently graduated with a PhD in computer science from the University of Toronto, where he studied Artificial Intelligence, or AI. Lu is Deaf, and uses sign language and lip reading, as well as his own voice.
Growing up, Lu says he always felt comfortable as a Deaf person, but found that hard to reconcile with the attitudes he encountered in his university education. He found people were used to teaching and learning science a certain way — which didn’t always involve working with Deaf people or ASL interpreters.
“I think I’m the first Deaf person in my program. So there was a whole bunch of confusion about how you get ASL interpreters and how they work in classes. There were a lot of professors that had never interacted with an ASL interpreter, or a student that uses an ASL interpreter,” he said.
“And then when you start looking into that, you start realizing, well, here are all of the barriers in the way that we’ve been educating deaf people.”
Some of those barriers can be traced back to the fact that, from the late 19th century to the early 1960s, sign language was often forbidden in education, as people believed it prevented Deaf children from learning speech.
ASL often not built for science
Today, there are few Deaf researchers working in academia, which has led to a problem: much of the technical and specialized language used in STEM hasn’t made its way into signed languages such as ASL.
When there are no signs, interpreters may use fingerspelling — spelling out each letter of a word — or the sign for the word in general English, which can be inaccurate.
Colin Lualdi, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, studies photonic quantum information. He said the lack of useful signs can be frustrating and tedious for deaf students, and can produce misunderstandings.
One example was the term “degeneracy,” which he encountered as an undergrad. His ASL interpreter signed using the English word meaning to get worse over time. In fact, in physics this actually refers to two systems with the same amount of energy.
WATCH | Physicist Colin Lualdi defines the physics concept of ‘spin’ in ASL:
“And by that time, I realized we needed a new sign for it, in order to support the concepts that were being communicated,” he said.
Since then, Lualdi has joined a collaboration between Harvard University and the Learning Center for the Deaf to create signs for terms in quantum science. One of the signs the team has worked on is for electron; the current sign has an index finger circling a closed fist, representing a nucleus.
“It implies that you have an electron always circling a nucleus, right? But that’s not always true,” he said.
Instead, Lualdi and other project members have proposed a sign with just the index finger moving in a circle.
WATCH | Physicist David Spiecker demonstrates the proposed new ASL sign for the electron:
They’re now in the process of disseminating this sign and others, as well as syntax the project has been working on to improve communication of physics concepts, to see if they’ll be adopted by the broader community.
Either way, Lualdi says they’ve already made his own work as a scientist easier.
“Everyone wins when we have an improved framework of language and, and the process becomes much more efficient.”
Bringing a unique perspective to fieldwork
Outside of physics labs, being Deaf in science can present its own challenges and opportunities, as it did for Barbara Spiecker. She came to love fieldwork while pursuing her masters degree in marine biology.
Spiecker, who is now doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said her experience as a Deaf scientist, and a user of ASL, have honed her powers of observation, and provided her with a different lens to view the natural world.
“It’s very 3D based, a lot of what I do, and ASL is a 3D language. So often hearing people, when they research, have a different frame of how they see and interpret the world, and what they research. So, that’s what I bring to the table,” Spiecker said.
But Spiecker says being Deaf hasn’t always been seen as a strength. For the first two years of her PhD program, she was not provided an interpreter, which meant she missed out on learning opportunities. Spiecker says she had to fight hard to not have the cost of the interpreter pushed on her lab, which would have cut into their research budget and discouraged them from hiring Deaf students.
“That was quite the battle — if that was allowed, then I wouldn’t have got my PhD.”
In fieldwork, too, she encountered attitudes that could present obstacles. At one point, her work involved extended time on the seaweed carpet of the potentially treacherous intertidal zone. Advisors and potential employers expressed doubt she could be safe in the water.
“I [was] like, ‘there’s really no difference, you probably aren’t relying on your hearing at that point, either.’ My eyes are very vigilant in these situations,” she said.”It just took a little education and explanation, to help them realize there’s really no difference.”
The value of different perspectives
But Alex Lu says there is a difference in once important way — in that Deaf scientists, by virtue of their life experiences, contribute different perspectives.
“The value of having disabled people in science, and marginalized people in science isn’t that you just want to get people who are uniformly going to be superheroes or anything like that,” he says. Instead, he says what’s important is that “we contribute perspectives that are different from mainstream science.”
Back at the former gold mining site, Linda Campbell says science is strengthened by having more people contributing diverse perspectives, such as the issues she works on, challenging legacy contaminants affecting ecosystems.
“We’re building many lines of evidence for the research and the potential risks of the tailings and how to manage those risks,” she said. When barriers prevent Deaf scientists from contributing to these kinds of challenges, she said, “you’re losing that whole group of people who have such intense, powerful skills that can advance the field of science.”
And the fact that some Deaf scientists have managed to work and advocate their way into positions working on environmental issues and other aspects of STEM doesn’t mean that the barriers have been removed — instead, she said it should be seen as inspiration for work that is still to come.
“There are many, many more people that could be successful and could contribute to science and make the planet a more healthy place. But they just can’t, because of those very barriers imposed on them,” she said.
“‘If they can do it, you can do it’ — that’s not it. It’s more that ‘they could do it, so we can find a way for you to do it, too.'”
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.