Readers’ wildlife photos and stories: the entomology behind Lyle’s Black Treacle

April 22, 2022 • 9:30 am

Today we have another history/natural history/general interest contribution from reader Athayde Tonhasca Junior. His notes are indented, and click on the photos to enlarge them.

If you walk into a British supermarket and pick up a tin of Lyle’s Golden Syrup or Black Treacle (these are by-products of sugar refining processes, similar to corn syrup and molasses), you will notice one of the strangest logos for a food product: a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees above the slogan ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’.

Lyle’s Black Treacle:

The image and text are based on the Biblical tale in which Samson kills a lion to find a honeycomb inside it. This unexpected discovery led Samson to write a riddle: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. Meaning: from the carcass of a lion (the eater and the strong), Samson had meat and honey (sweetness). The story impressed the staunch Presbyterian Abram Lyle (1820-1891), businessman and founder of the sugar refinery Abram Lyle & Sons. And so one of Britain’s oldest brands was born: the logo hasn’t changed much since 1885.

But the yarn about dead animals and bees is older than Samson’s adventure. The Greeks, the Romans and other Mediterranean peoples believed that honey bees originated spontaneously from animal carcasses, primarily of oxen. The Greeks had a name for this miracle: bugonia, from bous (ox) and gon (generation). The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC) told the story of a farmer, who in want of bees, slaughtered an ox and waited for a new swarm. Bugonia inspired Shakespeare as well: ‘Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb, in the dead carrion’ (Henry IV).

Bugonia, unknown author, 1517:

But the belief in carcass apiculture suffered a fatal blow in 1668, when the Italian physician, naturalist, biologist and poet Francesco Redi (1626-1697) published Esperienze Intorno alla Generazione degl’Insetti (Experiments on the generation of insects). By comparing covered and uncovered meat-filled glass containers and observing the presence or absence of flies and maggots, Redi put an end to the idea of spontaneous generation.

Bugonia was dead, but the recurrent reports of bees swarming around carcasses, just like in Lyle’s logo, still required explanation. Enter diplomat and entomologist Baron Karl-Robert von Osten-Sacken (1828-1906), who, despite his Teutonic name, was Russian. The Baron suggested that the ‘bees’ found around dead animals were in fact flies: not the expected carrion-seeking blow flies and blue bottles, but the drone fly, Eristalis tenax.

The name ‘drone fly’ comes from its resemblance, in appearance and behaviour, to honey bees. The adults feed on pollen, especially from yellow flowers such as dandelions, and are known to pollinate various crops. The larva has a long ‘tail’, which is a specialized respiratory structure that works as a snorkel, allowing the insect to breathe air from the surface when submerged in liquids. This respiratory appendage gives the larva its common name: the rat-tailed maggot.

A male drone fly. Like many fly species, males have larger eyes that almost touch, while female eyes are spaced apart © Sandy Rae, Wikimedia Commons.

A drone fly larva, or rat-tailed maggot © Obsidian Soul, Wikimedia Commons.

In his 1894 publication ‘On the oxen-born bees of the Ancients (bugonia) and their relation to Eristalis tenax, a two-winged insect’, von Osten-Sacken explained the bugonia phenomenon as this: ‘The original cause of this delusion lies in the fact that a very common fly, scientifically called Eristalis tenax (popularly the drone-fly), lays its eggs upon carcasses of animals, that its larvae develop in the putrescent mass, and finally change into a swarm of flies which, in their shape, hairy clothing and colour, look exactly like bees, although they belong to a totally different order of insects.’

The Baron was close: the female drone fly does not lay her eggs on carcasses, but on the exudates and foul water accumulated around them. Other contaminated water sources would do, such as sewage, manure lagoons, holding pits in livestock areas, ditches and wet silage.

Hence an entomological/historical mystery may have been solved.

Drone flies are not the only insects interested in a dead lion: blow flies of the genus Lucilia may get to it first – or to a dead bird or small mammal in your neighbourhood. You will certainly have seen these shiny, metallic green flies, known as green bottles, in your garden or around your bins. They comprise several species that are difficult to tell apart.

A female green bottle fly.

Female green bottle flies use their powerful sense of smell to track minute volumes of sulphur volatiles released by recently deceased animals. Once a fly finds a corpse, sometimes within minutes of death, she lays 150 to 200 eggs on it. The eggs quickly hatch into maggots, which feed on the rotting flesh. After about ten days, they leave the body and pupate in the soil nearby.

Gross, you say? Well, green bottle flies help decompose carcasses, accelerating the release of organic matter and nutrients into the ecosystem. Without them and other scavenging insects such as flesh flies and carrion beetles, decomposition by microorganisms would take much longer, and rotting carcasses would accumulate in the landscape. Alas, these flies can lay their eggs on live bodies as well. The common green bottle fly Lucillia sericata is a serious pest of sheep, causing significant expenses for farmers.

However, green bottle flies are not all death and pestilence. Because their maggots preferentially consume dead tissue, they have been used for the treatment of non-healing wounds in people and animals. Maggot therapy has been known since 1557 when Ambroise Paré (c. 1510-1590), the Chief Surgeon of King Charles IX of France, described a soldier with a deep head wound filled with a ‘great number of worms’, and noted that the patient ‘recovered beyond all men’s expectation’. This unusual but effective treatment saved many lives before antibiotics become widely available, and the therapy is experiencing a comeback because of antibiotic resistance. Disinfected L. sericata maggots are placed in a diabetic ulcer, bedsore or other chronic wound, where they eat the necrotic tissue and produce antimicrobial enzymes that prevent infections, thus speeding the growth of new tissue.

Maggot debridement (the removal of necrotic tissue to help a wound heal) on a diabetic foot © Alexsey Nosenko/Maggot Medicine, Wikimedia Commons

Wound healing is not the only service provided by L. sericata. This species is a good pollinator of crops that produce few flowers or little pollen such as cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, carrot, onion, leek, and asparagus; so much so that this fly is commercially available to complement the pollination by bees in glasshouses. Not so bad for those green creatures buzzing around your rubbish!

Because drone flies and green bottles are dependent on dead bodies, they are important aids to forensic science. By noting the flies’ life stage, criminal investigators can determine a person’s time of death, and the presence or absence of flies in certain environments can be an indication of tampering with the body: drone flies for example are indicators of partially submerged cadavers.

Forensic entomology students learning the ropes © UC Riverside.

Shortly after an animal expires, its body starts releasing the scents of decay. Thanks to their sensitive antennae, sexton beetles such as Nicrophorus vespilloides can locate a corpse within an hour of death and from as far away as 3 km. The first male-female pair to arrive examines it to assess its size; bodies too big to be handled are rejected. If the ground is unsuitable for digging, they drag the body to a better location, all the while fencing off late arrivals and competitors.

A common sexton beetle, Nicrophorus vespilloides © Holger Gröschl, Wikimedia Commons.

The beetles loosen the soil with their heads and shove it aside, gradually constructing a burial chamber that eventually sinks the carcass into the ground, a process that may take up to 8 hours. After burial, the beetles strip away any fur or feathers and shape the flesh into a compact ball, dousing it with secretions that act as anti-bacterial agents to slow down decomposition. The female then lays her eggs in the soil nearby. Watch sexton beetles in action here and here.

Two common sexton beetles in a dead rodent caught in a mousetrap © Calle Eklund, Wikimedia Commons.

Until they are about three days old, sexton beetle larvae beg for food by pressing against the adult’s jaws, which stimulates regurgitation – a behaviour normally associated with birds and their nestlings. Afterwards the larvae feed directly on the carcass, but they are cared for by their parents throughout their development. This is a rare and highly developed behaviour in insects, normally found in social bees, wasps, ants, and termites. But it’s not all love and care in the life of a young sexton beetle; if the adults sense that the brood is too big or the carcass is too small, some of the smaller larvae are eaten, so that the remaining ones will have a sufficient food supply.

A female N. vespilloides feeds her begging young © Allen J. Moore, Nature Communications 6: 8449.

These complex interactions between parents and offspring represent the highest degree of sociality among Coleoptera, and that’s why sexton beetles are considered to have attained the level of ‘subsocial’ on insects’ sociality spectrum. And recently, a new twist has been revealed in their intricate lives.

A female dedicates her time and energy to the offspring. The male however may have other ideas thanks to sexual competition; he may be driven to pester her for sex to guarantee paternity because given the chance, other males will have a go with the busy female. She has a chemical solution for this harassment problem: during early stages of larval growth, she releases methyl geranate, which has anti-aphrodisiac properties and inhibits the mating instinct of males.

So there you have it: sexton beetles have created the first anti-Viagra.

If you bump into a dead lion or another cadaver, you may pause to brood over life and mortality. But although that carcass was the end of the line for one life, by no means was it the end of the line for life. Dead animals (and dung as well) are valuable resources, full of complex proteins, carbohydrates, fats and sugars. And many creatures are ready to exploit the life opportunities offered by a corpse.

25 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos and stories: the entomology behind Lyle’s Black Treacle

    1. A steamed treacle pudding (made with proper Tate and Lyle Black Treacle, and not insipid molasses) is esteemed as much as rhubarb pie in my household. The Golden Syrup is excellent stuff too; highly recommended for drop scones (aka griddle, or even girdle scones for those from the border country), and for use in porridge.

  1. Well that went in an unexpected and interesting direction. Thanks. I’ve looked at that label all my life and although I knew the biblical link had never gone past that. Still not sure why we get treacle in the UK and molasses in the US. They are different enough to not be interchangeable for all purpose, although the substitution works pretty well in most cases.

  2. One can only be agog and gob-smacked at this marvelous & twisty tale about icky natural history! Seriously, you could write magazine articles for scientifically inclined audiences. I did not know that rat-tailed maggots could occupy petrifying bodies. The ones I know live in stagnant water.

  3. Very interesting! To contribute a slightly more modern cultural reference, in The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter left a note for Clarice Starling that she was the answer to Samson’s riddle: the honey in the lion. According to Lecter’s note, that was the reason the philistines didn’t appreciate her.

    1. Following up for accuracy’s sake, I misremembered. The note from Lecter to Starling is from the sequel, Hannibal, not The Silence of the Lambs.

  4. Great post! Thanks for the wonderful information.
    Personally, I’m not sure how good I’d be with Maggot therapy….

  5. Anyone know what are the antibiotics that the maggot larvae ? Fascinating post. Grew up on treacle also. Treacle scones.!

    1. They just eat dead flesh, while fastidiously pruning around live tissue. I don’t know about antibiotic quality, but I suppose their excrement might be sterile if they are raised in culture.

      1. Fly larvae really do seem to exude antibiotics, as I learned when raising the botfly in my arm. It was a deep wound, but there was zero infection after the botfly larva emerged from my arm.

    2. Yes, and the antibacterial agents secreted by the sexton beetles!

      Wondering if anyone is investigating how to turn these into antibiotic medications.

  6. Excellent post, and really nice to read more about the life-histories of these (often common) species.

    When you say that these complex interactions between parents and offspring represent the highest degree of sociality among Coleoptera, it’s also worth noting that there are other instances of sociality among beetles. For example the Ambrosia beetle, Austroplatypus incompertus, is often described as fully eusocial (and therefore has an arguably even greater degree of sociality than the common sexton beetles shown here). In this species females first rear offspring by themselves in tree galleys, and then the female offspring emerge and remain behind to rear additional offspring. Interestingly, these female ‘workers’ lose the last four tarsal segments on their legs, and never leave the tree so exhibit a sterile phenotype which is very similar to eusocial ants, wasps, bees, and termites.

  7. Thank you all for the kind and motivating comments, and thanks to da Boss for giving me the opportunity to share these stories. David, thanks for citing the ambrosia beetle – a story that deserves to be told! Debra, I wouldn’t be keen on maggot therapy myself, but it has saved many limbs and probably lives. The treatment is available on Britain’s National Health Service.

  8. Great post. I love greenbottles & used to have a bucket of soggy muck in a former garden, that Eristalis larvae developed in.

  9. I knew about the maggots cleaning up wounds, as it was used in the internment camps in Indonesia during WWII (as a youngster some old internees, all dead by now, related it to me), but I had no idea it was practiced as early as 1557, nor about Ambroise Paré. Thanks for that.
    And the rest of the post, about mimicry flies, was highly informative too. Great post!

  10. Interesting and disturbing post.
    The etymology of treacle is also interesting, from “relating to venomous beasts”.

    In the 18th and early 19th century, my ancestors ran a molasses mill, of the type made from sorghum. The remains of the horse-powered wood and iron press are sitting in my garden.

  11. Here is photographic evidence of bees on carrion. I took this picture in 1983 while walking through a forest in the Western Ghats of India (state of Karnataka). I saw insect activity around the rotting head of a deer. Most of the insects were flies of various sorts, but about 10 of them were honey bees (the Eastern Hive Bee, Apis cerana). They were lapping at liquid seeping from the rotting flesh. The fact that multiple bees were there, and not interacting aggressively, suggested that bees from the same colony had been recruited to the skull by way of the dances of scouts. I messed around with the bees to see if what drew them to the carcass was a need for water (they avoided pure water when I provided it) or sugars (they also declined pure honey when I smeared it on the skull). I surmised that they were there for salts or minerals. I later asked friends in a nearby village about it and was told that this bee comes to carcasses “in battalions.”

    Main picture (a not-great scan from a 2×2 slide):

    Cropped portion to highlight the A. cerana forager:

    1. Interesting, and great images. I don’t know about A. cerana, but bumble bees, including the ubiquitous B. terrestris, have been caught eating carrion, and A. mellifera has been recorded – in Spain, I believe – feeding on the fluids exuding from pig carcasses. Other exotic food items in bees’ menus are mammalian faeces, human urine and bird droppings. Probably, as you pointed out, sources of essential minerals. But bees don’t breed on or colonise corpses, as far as I know. Here’s a case of a full-time carnivore bee:

      1. Thanks for the reference! And yes, an animal carcass would be a bad place for a perennial colony to build a nest!

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