Night of the Zombees? Scientists seek link to colony collapse disorder.

Experts continue to research the parasitic fly Apocephalus borealis and to question its relationship to colony collapse disorder.

Mike Groll/AP
In this Sept. 1, 2015, file photo, a honeybee works atop gift zinnia in Accord, N.Y. While scientists have documented cases of tiny flies infesting honeybees, causing the bees to lurch and stagger around like zombies before they die, researchers don’t know the scope of the problem. Now they are getting help in tracking the problem from ZomBee Watch, created in 2012 by John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University.

Zombie bees have been spotted along the West Coast and recently in some Eastern states, making experts question why already-threatened honeybees are unwillingly abandoning their hives.

Researchers believe that Apocephalus borealis flies may be depositing eggs in the bees’ stomach, changing their behavior. The theory is that, once the honeybees have maggots in their abdomen, they fly erratically in uncharacteristic night flights, usually staggering around porch lights before falling dead.

Although zombie bees are similarly led to abandon their hives in colony collapse disorder (CCD), experts are unsure if they can link this phenomenon to CCD. Currently, the US Environmental Protection Agency believes that the leading causes of CCD – which occurs when a majority of worker bees in a colony abandon their hive – are invasive mites and pesticide poisoning.

“We’re not making a case that this is the doomsday bug for bees,” Dr. John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University told the Associated Press. “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.”

Dr. Hafernik organized the ZomBee Watch project in 2012, which allows “citizen scientists” to document where Apocephalus borealis infestations are occurring around the country to better inform researchers.

“Understanding causes of the hive abandonment behavior we document could explain symptoms associated with CCD,”  Hafernik and his co-authors write in a 2012 paper on the parasitic fly apocephalus borealis published in the open access journal PLOS. “Further, knowledge of this parasite could help prevent its spread into regions of the world where naïve hosts may be easily susceptible to attack.”

We have a lot to learn about these parasite flies, but both beekeepers and scientists say its too early to fear "The Buzzing Dead."

“You know, the ‘zombie’ thing is a little bit sensational and some people hear that and they go right into alarm bells ringing,” Joe Naughton, a beekeeper of over 200,000 bees in New York told the Associated Press. “Where the state of things are right now is mostly just fact finding.” 

Hafernik agrees, confirming that we do not know if the fly has an impact on colony productivity, or a role in CCD.  So although we shouldn’t fear zombie bees themselves, experts fear this additional stress could hurt already decreasing populations. 

We have about 40 percent loss of all colonies nationwide, so bees are having a pretty tough time just surviving,” San Francisco beekeeper Robert Mackimmie told the Associated Press. “It’s tough to be a bee these days.”

And Ramesh Sagili, assistant professor of apiculture at Oregon State University told the Associated Press he agrees. “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.”

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