The first confirmed case of “zombie bees” in Washington state has been found by a Kent beekeeper. Discovered in California in 2008, the bees are infected by a parasitic fly that causes the bees to lurch around erratically before dropping dead.
The discovery expands the range of the so-called “zombie bees” first discovered in California in 2008 by San Francisco State University biologist John Hafernik. Through his website ZombeeWatch.org, Hafernik is recruiting a network of citizen scientists, like Hohn, to help determine how widespread the parasite is and whether it is contributing to the demise of bee colonies across the country.
The fly’s life cycle is gruesomely reminiscent of the movie “Alien” — though they don’t pose a risk to people. Adult females, smaller than a fruit fly, land on the backs of foraging honeybees and use their needle-sharp ovipositors to inject eggs into the bee’s abdomen. The eggs hatch into maggots. “They basically eat the insides out of the bee,” Hafernik said.
After consuming their host, the maggots pupate, forming a hard outer shell that looks like a fat, brown grain of rice. When Hohn looked in his Ziploc bag a week later, he saw several pupae — the smoking gun evidence that his bees were infected.
Bee populations have plummeted in recent years, threatening crops that rely on the insects for pollination. Scientists attribute the decline to a mysterious ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder. No one knows the exact cause, but researchers have found a variety of mites and viruses that afflict colonies. Pesticides probably play a role, too, said Steve Sheppard, chairman of the entomology department at Washington State University.
There’s no evidence yet that the parasitic fly is a major player in the bees’ decline, but it does seem that the pest is targeting new hosts, Sheppard said.
Tip: Matthew Crowley (@matthetube) via Twitter
Parasites are most unpleasant of creatures. So unpleasant are their methods that some use their existence as evidence against their being a benevolent creator.