Zombie Bee Discovered, ‘Zombee’ Infection Spreading?


Recently in Vermont, Anthony Cantrell, a beekeeper, discovered zombie bees or “ZomBees” as they are informally known. The insects were noticed after 30 of Cantrell’s bees were exhibiting strange behavior in October last year. First discovered in California two years ago, the chance of an infection spreading has been a lingering fear.

Zombie bees are honey bees infected by the zombie fly, a parasite otherwise known as apocephalus borealis. The zombie fly infects its host by laying eggs in its stomach. Once the egg hatches in the honey bee’s stomach the parasite would grow and cause the bee to act in weird behavior. The honey bee turned zombie would unnaturally exit their hives when the sun goes down and fly aimlessly around, attracted by lights. Eventually, after hours of being stranded, they will drop and die.

The fly is proven to be a parasite common for infecting bumble bees based on DNA barcoding. There is a fear there will be an explosion of zombee infection across the nation since honey bees live in large colonies and within close distance to each other. Moreover, beekeepers are frequently moving the hives around America, thus leading to a possible widespread zombee infection.

The first sighting of the terrifying insect was in 2012 in California, where hives were declining due to the zombie fly. This decline was of great concern as a third of the U.S. food supply is pollinated by bees. According to a map, zombees have since spread to South Dakota and there are samplings being done in several other states.

The discovery in Vermont is a concern as the eastern state could not be any more farther from the widespread infection across the western state of California. Cantrell learned the term zombie bees after finding ZomBee Watch, described as a citizen science project. The Watch is intent on hunting the zombees and stopping any kind of widespread infection to occur. To get to that point, their goal is to determine where around North America the zombie fly is infecting the honey bees. They also aim to understand the creature in regards to how often honey bees spend out at night compared to when they are infected. Most importantly, the Watch encourages citizens “to become better observers of nature” and to contribute to the knowledge of honey bees.

The group provides a tutorial on their website on how to become a zombee hunter and help them in their cause. First, since zombie bees are attracted to light, look for them under street lights, porch lights, or construct a light trap and place it where zombees were found. Much caution is placed as even when bees are dying on the ground, they can still sting.

The group provides instructions on effective custom-made light traps that could work, including one that involves a juice bottle and a light cage. The group also says to make sure you have a notebook to record data, a smart phone or digital camera to take photos, and one container per location with locality of the bees and date information taped on them. Most importantly, they also recommend having tweezers to handle the bees.

The group said the infected honey bees can be recognized as zombees if they release brown fly pupae in about a week after capture. For adults, the period is longer and they can release the pupae within a few weeks.

Zombees is a humorous name to give to these recently discovered zombie bees, but there is serious concern considering the dependence on honey bees that the U.S. has for agriculture. As the Watch instructions imply, it is not too hard to become a professional zombee hunter. So, start now before the infection spreads and get out those light traps!

By Kollin Lore

USA Today
Zombee Watch