Apocephalus borealis is a parasite that lays eggs inside of honey bees. Before they cause the bees to die, however, they make then act erratically, flying around in the dark like zombies who have already met their fate. The infestation is giving beekeepers and farmers a reason to worry as it is present in the northeast U.S. now for the first time, after initially only plaguing the bees from the western states.
The risk of honeybee colonies collapsing was already a reality for some beekeepers, even before the parasite starting spreading. Infestations from mites and rapidly changing temperatures had already threatened their existence. Colony collapse has also occurred when worker bees left their colonies and never returned.
The parasitic flies stab the honeybees in the abdomen with a tube to deliver the eggs. Then they hatch in the bees, infesting them and causing them to behave oddly. The larvae destroy their brains, leaving them unable to function as they normally would. After flying around aimlessly and bumping into things for up to five minutes, the bees fall to their death. Professor John Hafernik, a San Francisco State University bee expert says, “It’s sort of a combination of zombies and aliens mixed together.”
He went on to describe the way the bees act once infected by the parasites. They become disoriented, move towards light, fly with jerking movements and stumble around a lot before they die, he said. They don’t survive very long once the eggs have hatched. Being infected means certain death for the honeybee. It takes nearly a week for the parasite to fully mature, however. At that time it hatches from the bee, leaving it headless.
The bees being infected aren’t any rare type of bees though. They are the simple honeybees that farmers across the U.S. depend on for honey production and pollination.
The first bee parasite was discovered in Maine as early as 1920, but it was only known to strictly affect hornets and bumblebees. Honeybees did not appear to be affected at that time. After Hafernik first discovering the parasite infestation five years ago on the West Coast, zombie bees have spread, increasing the number of bees that die. They have now been spotted in Burlington, VA. States already confirming the parasite’s presence are California, Washington, Oregon and South Dakota. Until now, they had not been seen east of South Dakota.
Anthony Cantrell, a Burlington beekeeper, was the first to notice his hive was infiltrated with zombie bees last summer. They were confirmed in October by Hafernik, whose research on the infected bees continues.
On Tuesday, the subject of zombie bees was brought up at a Vermont Beekeepers Association meeting. They question whether the parasite flies last through the winter and live to infest more bees. They have not noticed a large amount of bees die from the infestation at this point, but fear that swift changes in temperature can result a larger amount of dead bees. Beekeepers and farmers have reason to be concerned, especially if the parasites are able to live outside of the host and survive in the bees hive to infect more bees.
By Tracy Rose