Mark Grossmann: The Bee’s Brain — the Zombie Apocalypse, but with Bees?

19 December 2013

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  So, Night of the Living Dead might be a true story!?  Yeah, but with bees instead of people and . . . substantial script revisions.

If zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, California does seem like the most appropriate place.  Then, the zom-bees spread to Washington state.   But why did they avoid Oregon?   When they suddenly arrived in a third state, North Dakota – that seemed odd.   The zombie horror genre just hasn’t conditioned me to think of North Dakota as a sort of hotspot for zombie anything.  Still, the bees can go where they will.  If, as zombies, they still have their own will.

Anyway, the short answer: zombie bees are with us.

When you say you’re going to talk about zombies, the next question is, “What kind of zombies?”  It’s not so much that there are different varieties of zombies as different versions.  There are horror movie zombies, the zombies in folklore, and the real zombies – or at least “real” in the sense that a lot of people alive today absolutely believe in the reality of zombies.

On the top of the heap, in terms of popularity, is the Hollywood horror version of the brain-eating zombie.  However, many of the characteristics of these, oh, so familiar, zombies were made up by Hollywood writers.

Digging deeper, we reach the cultural folklore of zombies together with anthropological explanations of that folklore.  Many believe that what are taken to be zombies are persons who are drugged with a special concoction that, either by its very nature or through precision dosing, so depresses vital functions that the victim is mistaken for dead and buried.  The perpetrator, then, digs up the depressed, but still living body of the victim and either fools or drugs them into a life of servitude.

However, the true believers in zombies will tell you that specially trained and/or gifted “voodou” (voodoo) practitioners have the ability to reanimate a dead body and control it like a robot.  They believe that the victim’s soul, consciousness, or spirit has permanently departed, but their body remains as a biological robot under the complete control of its “bokor.”

What about our bee zombies?  Well, actually their zombification resembles none of the above.  However, the result is so reminiscent of the zombies of folklore that, perhaps, there no better and readily understandable term to describe what’s happening to the poor bee victims.

Unlike the zombie of actual tradition, the zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis.   The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bees body, the eggs affect the bees behavior not too unlike what was presented in the 1982 film, StarTrek: The Wrath of Khan, in which “indigenous eels” of Ceti Alpha V are introduced into the brains of the crew members, characters Chekov and Terrell, by the character Khan — maddened by his years in exile.  The film’s eels enter the ears of their victims and, reaching their brains, render them susceptible to mind control.

However, unlike Star Trek’s eels, the eggs and larvae of the Apocephalus borealis fly actually control the bee’s “mind” only briefly before causing its death.  Then, they consume the bee’s physical remains.  From another angle, the action of larvae in “eating their way out” of the dead bee’s body reminds one of another Hollywood creation, the mythical earwig.

The earwig is a real and mean-looking insect, but it doesn’t enter the human ear, burrow into the human brain and lay its eggs.  All of that was an old and almost forgotten “urban legend,” until it was featured in a 1972 episode or Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (Season 2, Episode 60, “The Caterpillar”).  However, even the apocryphal earwig had no ability to control the mind of the host.  So, zombification was not part of the earwig repertoire.

But the New York Times story that revealed zombie bees to the world, asked, “Whose in charge in [the bee’s] head”? Because the fly larvae, inside the bee’s body, directly affect the honeybee’s behavior in disturbingly zombie-like ways.  Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honeybee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something bees don’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, the bee begins to move erratically.  And it ends its flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Hollywood has never quite dealt with this specific kind of zombification.  Of course, the zombie bee might be a good subject for a (not so) new and (not so) different kind of zombie movie.  Maybe the zombie creating flies enter the hive of apiarist, Ms. Red Queen, owner of Raccoon Apiary.  Realizing the problem, she uses an insecticide to kill all the possibility infected bees in a particular hive.  However, these particular flies are “mutants” and have laid mutant eggs in the bees’ bodies.  The larvae don’t grow to eat the infected bees, but reanimate them into murderous zombie bees worthy of any respectable (or not so respectable) Hollywood production.

One bee, Alice, is accidentally outside the hive (or something) during the spraying of insecticide.  She survives and re-enters the hive to discover zombified bees trying to escape and infect the apiary’s other hives.  She engages in a heroic struggle to contain the zombie bees and the infection they carry only to awaken from a coma outside the hive days later.  She sees only a single obviously dysfunctional bee flying repeatedly into a tree while repeating a message: “The dead buzz.”

Many sequels could follow.

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author

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