Parasitic Fly Turns Honeybees into Flying “Zombies”

Parasitic Fly Turns Honeybees into Flying “Zombies”
Science & Medicine

Just in time for the season premiere of “The Walking Dead,” researchers have announced that zombie bees have been spotted in some Eastern states. They’re not going to eat anyone’s brain (sorry?), but there could be a connection between the mindless creatures and honey bees that have been abandoning their hives in disturbing numbers.

When the parasitic Apocephalus borealis fly encounters certain types of bees, it aggressively stalks them and lays its eggs inside of them. As the larvae grow, they consume much of the muscle and nervous system of the host bee, destroying the bees’ brains. [1]

Prepare to never sleep again: a few weeks later the flies tear their way out of the bees’ bodies by splitting the thorax from the head.

While the bees’ innards are being consumed, they wander aimlessly, leave their hives to fly around at night, and become disoriented by bright lights.

The flying zombies were first spotted on the West Coast, but volunteers helping to track the bees’ movements have spotted them now on the East Coast. Just last week, a report came in about a zombified bee in New York for the first time.

John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University, launched ZomBee Watch in 2012 and asked participants to track spread of the bees. Volunteers were told to upload photos of the pupae and adult flies as they emerge. So far, through the project, Hafernik has confirmed more than 100 cases.

At first, the flies appeared to only go after bumblebees and yellow jackets, but in 2008, Hafernik scooped up some disoriented bees beneath a light outside his campus office and witnessed a pupae emerging from a bee. Shortly thereafter, a zombified honeybee was discovered in San Francisco.

The first zombie case in the east was discovered in Burlington, Vermont, in 2013. This summer, amateur beekeeper Joe Naughton, of Hurley, New York, found the first of 2 recently confirmed cases just north of New York City, in the Hudson Valley. [3]

“You know, the ‘zombie’ thing is a little bit sensational and some people hear that and they go right into alarm bells ringing,” Naughton said. “Where the state of things are right now is mostly just fact finding.”

Scientists have been unable to determine the cause of colony collapse disorder, a syndrome in which whole colonies of honeybees fail after the adult worker bees die off, but many of considering the possibility that the zombie bees might play a role. Many scientists suspect the disorder is caused by a number of factors, such as mites, neonicotinoids (a class of pesticides), and habitat loss. [4]

“We have several other stresses on bees and we don’t want any other stress like this one,” said Ramesh Sagili, an assistant professor of apiculture at Oregon State University. “We have to be cautious, but I’m not alarmed that this parasite is going to create a big problem.”


[1] The Washington Post

[3] CBS News