Apocephalus borealis, commonly called the “zombie fly” used to infect only bumblebees and paper wasps. Now the parasite has started to attack the European honey bee.
After piercing the bees’ abdomen the killer fly deposits its eggs. Once hatched, the larvae feed on the host bees, slowly destroying their brains. After a few weeks, the flies burst their way out of the bee by making a split between the head and the body.
While their bodies are being invaded by the alien parasites, infected bees turn into zombie-like creatures: crawling blindly in circles in daylight, wandering away from their hives at night, following bright lights and eventually failing to return to their colony.
The first case of “zombie bees” was spotted in 2008 by John Hafernik, Biology Professor at San Francisco State University. Since then the infestation has spread from the West Coast to the Eastern States and was recently reported in New York.
To keep track of the “zombie fly”, Professor Hafernik and several colleagues founded a citizen science project called “ZomBee Watch”.
Enlisting the help of a whole continent, they confirmed more than 100 cases since the project was founded in 2012.
So far, it is not clear if zombie bees can be linked to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a syndrome which makes whole colonies fail after the loss of adult worker bees. At present, researchers are still more concerned about threats like Varroa mites. However, the rise of the zombie fly makes them wonder: “We’re not making a case that this is the doomsday bug for bees,” said Hafernik about the new threat, “but it’s certainly an interesting situation where we have a parasite that seems to affect the behavior of bees and has them essentially abandoning their hives.”
Since is first discovery in 2008, the zombie fly has been talked about widely in the US media. Here are the links to some recent publications in the Washington Post, on CBS news and blogs.scientificamerican.
To check out what a zombie bee looks like watch this video clip.
ZomBee Watch also published a scientific paper on the parasite: “A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis”, by Andrew Core, John Hafernik, et al.