Already struggling due to Colony Collapse Disorder, vampire mites, and difficulties in finding enough food to sustain themselves, one of the world’s most important pollinators is facing a new threat in the form of tiny flies that can turn them into flying zombie drones.
According to the Associated Press, honeybees, particularly those in the western US, have become the victims of a bug that essentially brainwashes them into going out on nighttime flights, at times causing them to hover around porch lights until they die.
This fly had already been known to affect bumblebees and yellow jackets, but seven years ago, a San Francisco State University biology professor named John Hafernik discovered disoriented honeybees outside of his campus office. Shortly thereafter, he noticed pupae emerging from one of the afflicted pollinators, and the discovery inspired him to investigate.
In 2012, Hafernik launched Zombee Watch, a website to allow citizen scientists to report their own sightings and upload images of honeybees enslaved by these unusual flies and their insect masters. Since then, there have been more than 100 confirmed sightings, including some as far east as Vermont and New York, the AP said.
Could these bugs play a role in Colony Collapse Disorder?
The creature responsible for this phenomenon is a parasitic phorid fly, the Apocephalus borealis, Hafernik and colleagues from SFSU, the University of California, San Francisco, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County reported in a January 2012 PLOS One study.
Once a bee is infected, they explained, it abandons its hives during the nighttime and dies shortly thereafter. Then, approximately one week later, as many as 13 phorid larvae emerge from each of the bee carcasses. DNA barcoding revealed that these flies are the same species as those that had been infecting bumblebees, and analysis revealed that the bees typically had been infected with a condition called deformed wing virus and a parasite known as Nosema ceranae.
The flies also tested positive for these pathogens in both their larvae and adult stages, Hafernik and his co-authors wrote, suggesting that the fly was a potential vector of these pathogens. They believe that this discovery could provide new insights into similar hive abandonment issues seen in CCD, but a link between CCD and the zombie bees has yet to be established.
“We’re not making a case that this is the doomsday bug for bees,” Hafernik told the AP. “But it is certainly an interesting situation where we have a parasite that seems to affect the behavior of bees and has them essentially abandoning their hive.”
“We have several other stresses on bees and we don’t want any other stress like this one,” said Ramesh Sagili, an assistant professor of apiculture at Oregon State University. “We have to be cautious, but I’m not alarmed that this parasite is going to create a big problem.”
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