Zombees are moving east as honey bees, yellow jackets, and bumblebees infected with the larva of the Apocephalus borealis fly are discovered in Vermont. This news is making bee keepers and researchers nervous as yet another threat to the European Honey Bee, prevalent across the U.S. and Canada, is discovered. Already faced with loss of habitat and danger from pesticides, the spread of the zombie outbreak may push populations across the country to record lows. Although the discovery of infected hives farther east than ever recorded previously is enough to catch attention of anyone with a stake in bees well-being, the baffling part of the story is that the Apocephalus borealis has only recently begun infecting honey bees.
In the past the small flys were known to use bumblebees and yellow jackets as breeding grounds, but the shift to honey bees has been swift and startling, with over a third of West Coast colonies where the infections were first recorded believed to be infected. The Apocephalus borealis or Zombie Fly is a very small parasitoid phorid fly that lands on bees in flight and injects them with eggs. The eggs hatch inside the bee while it is still alive and begin to feed on the muscles and nervous system of the host. Eventually the larvae hatch and emerge through the neck of the bee to pupate outside the body. The entire cycle takes about a month, with larvae developing in about a week. As the larvae are consuming the bee it will begin to exhibit strange symptoms such as walking in circles and sometimes losing the ability to stand.
Infected hives become sluggish during the day and more active at night, sometimes even abandoning hives in poor conditions. These changes in behaviour generally cause the bees to die, but in the process the young zombie flys are spread to new areas with new bees to infect. Now that zombees are moving east, bee keepers and researchers alike are worried that new colonies will become infected and eventually wiped out.
With yet another pressure on bee populations, there is ever-increasing fear that the loss of the fuzzy fliers will begin to negatively affect crops and other plants. Although our main use of bees is honey making, they play an extremely important part in spreading pollen between plants of all kinds. Where wind and weather are not enough to spread sufficient pollen, bees step in and help to ensure genetic diversity among plant species, which is important in keeping healthy and virile plants that can withstand disease and produce full healthy crops. Should honey bees become extinct or if their numbers drop too low, honey is not the only foodstuff there may soon be shortages of.
Now that it has been confirmed that zombees are moving east, concern over how to protect bees and ensure the continuation of plant species has also begun to spread across the continent. John Hafernik, a professor of Biology at San Fransisco State University and bee fan has started a zombeewatch website along with some colleagues that features maps of known infected colonies and is updated with new information as it comes in to try to keep tabs on the spread of Apocephalus larvae.
By Daniel O’Brien