No, this isn’t a joke or the next big sci-fi flick coming to a box office near you, though I’m sure Hollywood could have a field day with it.
These ZomBees are real, and they’re spreading. All because of a parasitic fly known as Apocephalus borealis.
Hollywood could have a field day with this part too – it would make a great horror film.
The Apocephalus borealis female uses her needle like ovipositor to inject her eggs into the bees’ abdomen. As the eggs mature, the bees start to engage in odd behaviors like flying at night seeking bright light. Normally, bees do not leave the hive after dark.
After flying around the light source in odd, jerky movements, the infected bees drop to the ground and start walking as though confused and injured. See it in this video.
After about a week, the eggs hatch and the larvae work their way up to the bees’ thorax. To sustain themselves and finish growing, these parasitic little buggers liquefy wing muscle and dine on the nutrients created. When they’ve completed that process and completely incapacitated the bees, the larvae burst out of the bees’ bodies in a horrific display of gore and take flight to begin the process again.
How was this discovered?
San Francisco State University entomologist John Hafernik was the first person to discover these parasites and make note of their effect on bees. As an entomologist, Dr. Hafernik always paid special attention to the insects around him. In 2008, he noticed bees staggering around in circles on campus sidewalks. His curiosity peaked, Dr. Hafernik collected a few of the bees, thinking if nothing else they’d make good food for his pet praying mantis!
As with many great scientific discoveries, what happened next was combination of chance and luck. One of the vials of bees he collected got lost in the piles on his next. When he came across it a couple of weeks later, Dr. Hafernik discovered that the bees inside were dead, but covered with small brown pupae. Further investigation revealed that, at the time, 80 percent of the hives he examined in the San Francisco area were infected with the parasite.
In the time since, it’s been learned that the parasite is not limited to San Francisco. Rather, it’s becoming a nationwide epidemic.
Where it’s been
After that, Dr. Hafernik took up the cause of these poor parasitized bees and has dedicated resources to tracking their spread through zombiewatch.org where beekeepers and observant citizens can report sightings of the ZomBees.
Until 2013, the parasite seemed to be confined to the West Coast and South Dakota. By 2015, bees infected with the parasite were found in New England, mid-Atlantic states, and New York. Most recently (as of this writing), parasite infected bees were confirmed found in Virginia using samples from Lynn Berry and Ann Zudekoff. Although both Lynn and Ann are concerned, entomologists at Virginia Tech aren’t yet ready to push the panic button, stating that insects in other parts of the world have been known to kill bees in similar quantities without a dramatic impact on the population. (Personally, I wonder if bees in those other parts of the world are also battling CCD and toxic chemicals in their environment.)
Where it’s going
As of right now, there’s no indication that the spread of Apocephalus borealis will be stopping anytime soon. Dr. Hafenik and others continue to research this problem and seek solutions, but for the moment, the best solution they have is for beekeepers to keep their hives as healthy as possible. Healthier bees seem to be less appealing to the female parasites searching for an appropriate egg host. On the plus side, for the moment there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the parasites are able to infect humans.
How you can help
As with many issues currently facing the bees, you don’t have to be a beekeeper to make a difference. The ZomBee watch project needs citizens to help them track the spread. You won’t need axes or sledgehammers to hunt down these zombies, nor will you be at risk for having your brain devoured. So, becoming a ZomBee hunter is a safe enterprise that could have tremendously positive results. Learn more here and then sign up to get started.
Apocephalus borealis is an insidious parasite determined to turn gentle, productive honeybees into incubators for their young. The female parasite uses her syringe-like ovipositor to inject eggs into unsuspecting bees. As the eggs develop, bees engage in a zombie-like dance under bright lights. For a creature that doesn’t normally go out after dark, this would be bad enough. It gets worse when the eggs hatch and feed on the bees’ liquefied wing muscles.
Currently, the parasite is spreading and there’s no end in sight. Beekeepers and bee lovers can help by maintaining healthy hives and by becoming ZomBee hunters to help track the spread. Bees are already combating toxic chemicals in their environment, mites, and other hive threats. The addition of this parasite may prove more than they can handle. Or maybe it’s the wake up call we need to start turning things around.