Home Science Mysteries Living Dead: Tiny Flies Are Turning Honeybees Into 'Zombees'

Living Dead: Tiny Flies Are Turning Honeybees Into ‘Zombees’

The humble honeybee is now under threat by a new enemy: Apocephalus borealis (a tiny fly) that is turning the bees into “zombees.” Once affected, the bees make uncharacteristic night flights and stagger around under porch lights until they die.

Researchers believe the flies attack the bees as they forage; it is thought the flies pierce the bee’s abdomen, where they then deposit eggs. Shortly after the bees die, pupae are seen emerging from the bee.

There are documented cases on the West Coast of the United States, but volunteers that help track the spread have found it is also happening in eastern states. This leaves experts asking why honeybees are so unwilling to abandon their hives.

Watch the zombees’ flight of the living dead:

John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University, told the Associated Press (AP): “We’re not making a case that this is the doomsday bug for bees, but it is certainly an interesting situation where we have a parasite that seems to affect the behavior of bees — and has them essentially abandoning their hive.”

The volunteers are from ZomBee Watch, which was created by Hafernik in 2012. Volunteers are asked to take photos of the bees they collect, and take photos of pupae and adult flies as they emerge from the bees.

Dr. John Hafernik talks at TEDx about the flight of the ‘living dead’:

Experts are hesitant to link this to colony collapse disorder (CCD). On the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, the leading causes of CCD are invasive mites and pesticide poisoning.

There are more than 100 confirmed cases, of which almost all of them are on the West Coast, with some isolated cases in Vermont and New York state.

Hafernik and his co-authors wrote in a 2012 paper on the parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis: “Understanding causes of the hive abandonment behavior we document could explain symptoms associated with CCD.”

“Knowledge of this parasite could help prevent its spread into regions of the world where naïve hosts may be easily susceptible to attack.”

Even though this could lead to a major problem in bee populations, scientists and beekeepers believe it is too early to make any drastic changes to how we work with bees.

Joe Naughton, a beekeeper in New York, told AP: “The ‘zombee’ thing is a little bit sensational, and some people hear that and they go right into alarm bells ringing,” adding that “where the state of things are right now is mostly just fact-finding.”

Robert Mackimmie, a beekeeper from San Francisco, said: “We have about a 40 per cent loss of all colonies nationwide, so bees are having a pretty tough time just surviving; it’s tough to be a bee these days,” reported Csmonitor.

Ramesh Sagili, an assistant professor of apiculture at Oregon State University, said: “We have several other stresses on bees, and we don’t want any other stress like this one. We have to be cautious, but I’m not alarmed that this parasite is going to create a big problem.”

In a statement from ZomBee Watch, Naughton discovered the first New York State honey bee parasitized by the “zombee” fly:

“This is the third record of A. borealis parasitizing honey bees in the eastern U.S., and raises the possibility that honey bees infected by the zombie fly are present in hives throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic States. Because infected honey bees leave their hives, beekeepers may not even be aware that their hives are infected.”

“Now is an important time for obtaining new information from citizen scientists. The next six weeks are the best time for beekeepers and citizen scientists to be on the look-out for honey bees acting strangely, and coming to lights at night. Their observations are critical to determine the extent of the threat to eastern honey bees from the zombee fly,” ZomBee Watch wrote.

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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