Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
As the nights grow longer and Halloween draws closer, the walking dead aren´t the only horror lurking just outside the front door. Americans from coast to coast should be aware that sightings of the flying dead are on the rise as well.
More specifically, ℠zombie bees´ have now been spotted in Washington State, hundreds of miles from their first sighting in 2008 by a San Francisco State University biologist. These undead insects fly and behave in an erratic behavior, then drop dead after being infected by a parasitic fly that injects its eggs into the bee´s abdomen.
Seattle resident and amateur beekeeper Mark Hohn first noticed something unusual when he saw dead bees scattered around the front of his shop. Having heard about the zombie bee phenomenon, Hohn collected several of the tiny corpses in a plastic bag.
Hohn´s suspicions were realized when he saw that pupae had emerged from the honeybees´ bodies several days later.
“I joke with my kids that the zombie apocalypse is starting at my house,” said Hohn.
In addition to erratic flying patterns, infected bees have been spotted congregating around lights at night, which is unusual for most honey bees that typically spend the night inside their hive.
John Hafernik, who first discovered the phenomenon, has been tracking the dead and dying honey bees through a website called ZomBee Watch. The website is intended to determine where the parasite is actively infecting bees, record observations on how bees are behaving, and raise awareness of a serious problem that could be affecting the very pollinators that the agricultural industry depends on.
“We really would like to get more samples from Washington and from all over,” Hafernik told the Seattle Times.
The parasitic fly´s life cycle is literally ripped from the script of the sci-fi horror film “Aliens.” Adult female individuals will land on the back of a honey bee and inject their eggs into the bee´s body. The eggs eventually hatch and the maggots eat their way out of the insect until they burst out from the inside.
The maggots then become pupae with a hard, brown rice-like outer shell. Adult flies then emerge from the pupae in three to four weeks.
Like the aliens in the movie, it´s the parasitic flies that are the natives of the area and the hosts that are the intruders. Honey bees were brought to North America by European settlers in the 17th century. Before that time, the flies likely infected bumble bees and wasps.
The emergence of zombie bees has increased significance because of the recent massive drop in honey bee populations. While it appears unlikely that the parasites are a major driver of these die-offs, they could be part of a confluence of factors plaguing North American bees.
“It may occur a lot more widely than we think,” said chairman of the entomology department at Washington State University, Steve Sheppard, about the parasitic infections.
Sheppard and other experts agree that commercial pesticides, viruses, and mites all likely contribute to the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.