A parasite that causes honey bees to act erratically before killing them has been discovered in Virginia for the first time, and researchers tracking the parasite across the nation hope local citizen scientists can confirm whether it has spread to North Carolina.
The parasite is a tiny fly that lays eggs inside the abdomen of a worker honey bee. When the eggs hatch, fly larvae burst from the bee’s neck and grow into flies that then infect more bees.
Scientists refer to the infected bees as “zombees,” because they abandon their hives and eventually die after a period of zombie-like behavior. John Hafernik, an insect ecologist at San Francisco State University and lead scientist of the ZomBee Watch project, says zombified bees can be seen walking on sidewalks during the day or flying around lights at night, like moths, when healthy bees are in their hives.
Beekeepers are most likely to notice bees behaving erratically, but Hafernik says anyone can contribute to the project.
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“We expect that infection rates will rise during the summer and peak in the fall,” he said. “We are already receiving reports of honey bees being hard hit this year in the Hudson Valley of New York. More than ever, we need citizen scientists to join the ZomBee Watch team, to be on the lookout for honey bees acting strangely in their area and report their observations.”
Citizen scientists can learn about the project and report their findings at www.zombeewatch.org. According to a tutorial on the website, people should place suspected zombees in a plastic container with tweezers. A zombee may still sting, but it will just be a standard bee sting that won’t lead to a zombie infection.
Citizen scientists are urged to keep their bees for several days to see if fly larvae emerge from them. They’re then asked to send the bees and larvae to the researchers in California.
The researchers are also interested to know about bees that fly into a porch light or are found walking on the sidewalk even if they aren’t infected by the fly larvae, Hafernik said. He asks that beekeepers set up light traps to catch zombees in their apiaries; information for making traplights can be found on the project website.
The fly parasite poses a bigger danger to bees than turning them into zombies. They carry viral infections that can spread through a hive, and Hafernik says more problems caused by the flies may be discovered as the research develops.
In particular, he notes that citizen science can help determine whether the parasite can spread before the eggs hatch, which would place whole hives in danger. Though he wishes the circumstances were different, Hafernick said he enjoys working with citizen scientists and says the “power of getting this number of people and minds involved” is vital to science.
Honey bees are under attack on many fronts. Viral and fungal infections, pesticides and diseases carried by mites are taking out bees across North America. Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon where large numbers of bees abandon their hives, has caused a panic about the future of honey bees and of the fruits and vegetables they help produce.
Zombees are not as widespread as CCD, Hafernik says, but with so many problems facing a species that provides so much, it is better not to let it spread.
Stephen Ginley: 919-829-4520