Sunday, 29 July 2012

Science Sunday: ZomBees

Have you ever wondered what an insect version of a Night of the Living Dead-Alien-crossover might be like? No, me neither. But lets imagine for a minute that we did. The infected might just end up something like zombie bees - or ZomBees.

Photo by John Hafernik (SFSU Department of Biology)
Once infected, the usually diurnal bees - much like horror movie zombies - leave their hives during the night, form groups and are attracted to light sources. However, unlike fictional zombies, the bees will eventually die from their condition. 

Photo by John Hafernik (SFSU Department of Biology)
Unlike insects afflicted by the fungi genus cordyceps, this strange phenomena is caused by the phorid fly species Apocephalus borealis. This parasitic fly was previously thought only to target bumble bees and paper wasps, but has adapted to using the already declining honey bees as its host in recent years as well. A female fly seeks out the target insect and, after locating a weak point on the bee's abdomen, inserts her eggs inside using a syringe-like ovipositor on her rear. The fly larvae then begin to consume the bee from the inside out and also seem to affect their victim's brain, causing the aforementioned unusual behavior. Following this, the larvae eat their way out of their now-dead host and prepare for adulthood.

There is currently no cure for the problem at the moment, but setting up a light source near honey bee hives and checking for bees that gather under it or exhibit other symptoms, and then isolating those bees from the rest of the colony seems to help with containment. ZomBee Watch - a joint project funded and run by SFSU's Department of Biology, CCLS, and The Natural History Museum - has been set up to collect data about "zombie bees" and their unwanted "friends" and encourages the public to report the locations in which infected bees have been found.

This post is part of Science Sunday


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