Mark Grossmann: Zombie Bees Again?! – Spreading to Vermont

13 February 2014

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  Discovered in California in 2008 by John Hafernik, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University, zombie bees keep spreading.

Of course, if zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, I wasn’t surprised that it turned out to be California.  Then, they were reported in Washington state.  Why not Oregon?  Actually, they had spread stealthily into Oregon with reports only surfacing well after the “zom-bees” (I couldn’t resist) were an established fact to the north, in Washington state.

But the next appearance puzzled me.  North Dakota seemed like the last place I’d expect to meet a zombie, but that was the next state in which the “zom-bees” appeared. The zombie horror genre had conditioned me to imagine brain-eating zombies in California.  And the “real” zombie lore might suggest Louisiana.  But North Dakota just doesn’t have the “feel” of a hotspot for zombie anything.  But the “zom-bees” can fly where they will.  If, as “zom-bees,” they still have a “will.”

And their latest flight has taken them from South Dakota to Burlington, Vermont.  There, amateur beekeeper Anthony Cantrell began finding dead bees near his home.  One can only imagine his “horror” when he discovered a close match between the behavior of his dying bees and a description on ZomBeeWatch.org, the website belonging Hafernik and his colleagues.  Dr. Van Helsing, er, ah, I mean, Professor Hafernik soon arrived to investigate and confirm that, indeed, Cantrell’s bees had been zombified!

The bee version of a zombie needs its own description.  They aren’t really much like the brain-eating zombies created by Hollywood.  And, then, there are the “real” zombies.  At least, the real belief in zombies that goes with a belief in Voodoo. But neither the “zombies” of Hollywood or Voodoo exactly match our zombie bees.  Still, when you hear how zombie bees behave, you’ll understand why “zombie” was picked as the best way to describe the fate of these poor insects.

The zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, apocephalus borealis. The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bee’s body.  Then, the eggs actually affect the bee’s behavior.  However, the eggs and larvae of the apocephalus borealis fly control the bee’s “mind,” only briefly, before causing its death.

Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honeybee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something a bee doesn’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, (what Hafernik calls “”the flight of the living dead,’”) the bee begins to move erratically.  It ends its last flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Cantrell reported that, at a recent meeting of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, Steve Parise, an agriculture production specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, discussed the threat posed by zombie bees.  Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture is considering trapping bees to investigate the zombie bee threat.

The culprit fly was originally discovered in the 1920s, in Maine. Since that time, it has spread across the United States.  It was a known parasite of bumblebees and yellow jacket hornets — but it left honeybees alone.  At least, it did until 2008, when the fly changed.  Now, it’s a honeybee parasite.  Not only do the fly’s eggs and larvae feed off the honeybee, they turn the victim into a zombie.

The End?

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author

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