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‘ZomBee’ apocalypse: Honeybees infected by parasite flies could damage ecosystem

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MILFORD--We may not yet be dealing with a zombie apocalypse, but we are dealing with a "ZomBee" infestation.

So what exactly are ZomBees?

ZomBees are honeybees that have been infected by parasite flies that turn the honeybees into hosts. The infection causes the honeybees to act in a zombie-like state, according to the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

The zombie fly, as it's known, or Apocephalus borealis, lays eggs inside of a honeybee's abdomen, which then grows into maggots, which in turn feed off the bee while it's still alive.

The symptoms of ZomBees though are the most concerning aspect:

  • The bees leave their hives at night time
  • The bees gather around street or porch lights, like flies
  • The bees eventual crawl around on the ground disoriented, or are dead on the sidewalk

The parasitodial relationship eventually leads to the maggots eating the insides of the bee, which kills the bee, and at that point the maggots leave the body to lay new eggs, which eventually hatch into adult flies.

Thus, the cycle begins again.

The zombie flies have been infecting bumblebees and yellow jackets for a while, but have expanded their reach to honeybees. Now, they are infecting honeybees across the nation, including in Connecticut: Two samples are being examined in Milford to determine if they've been infected.

Credit: ZomBee Watch

Credit: ZomBee Watch

So why should we care?

They're just bees, right? We hate when they sting us anyway!

The thing is, bees are essential to our food supply. Bees pollinate many plants, including crops like kiwi, watermelon, cantaloupe, zucchini, pumpkin, squash, cashews and more. They also, of course, produce honey and beeswax.

One of the signature symptoms of the ZomBee disorder is that it causes the bees to leave the hive at night, and often not return since the bees die off. That is contributing to colony collapse disorder, or the dying off of honeybees across the United States.

Also, the ZomBees do still sting, though that isn't thought to be any more dangerous than a regular sting, according to ZomBee Watch.

What's being done about it?

ZomBee Watch is a grassroots citizen science project launched in 2012 to help locate ZomBee populations. It asks citizens to help by uploading photos of bees thought to be ZomBees, and also asks for people to collect the suspicious bees and monitor them for signs of the ZomBee infection.

ZomBee Watch is a joint venture that was started by the San Francisco State University's biology department, the San Francisco State University Center for Computing for Life Sciences and the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

Learn more and how to participate here.