The ZomBee dance of death
Hafernik was originally responsible for discovering the gruesome interaction between honeybees and Apocephalus borealis. He noticed downed bees under electric lights in 2008 and put them in a jar as food for his lab’s praying mantises. He then forgot about the jar—when he came back, it was littered with brown pupae, which inspired a 2012 journal articlefingering Apocephalus as the creator of what he calls “ZomBees.”
The fly had been known to parasitize bumblebees but not honeybees. The relationship might not have been noticed before, or perhaps it’s new. Hafernik favors the latter explanation. “If it was going on longer, there’d be more accounts from beekeepers and others,” he says.
At least one Bay Area beekeeper, Robert MacKimmie, has noticed an increase in afflicted specimens in recent years. “There are up to 200 bees a day or more disappearing from hives,” he says. On many mornings, he finds “bees in front of the hives crawling around in circles like they were drunk or poisoned.”
Here’s the “ZomBee” dance of death, in brief. Apocephalus, smaller than a fruit fly and looking like any other inconsequential pest, lands on a bee and jabs eggs through cracks in its abdomen. The parasite flies off and presumably expires thinking, “Job well done,” but it’s just the beginning of the host’s woes. The eggs mature, triggering something in bees that causes them to venture out at night in search of artificial light. They then fall to the ground and wander dazed as if they have neurological damage.
The night-stalking remains a mystery. “It’s quite possible it’s the parasite manipulating the host to move to a better place to complete its life cycle,” says Hafernik. “Or it could be the bee committing altruistic suicide, getting out of the hive to make it less likely other bees get infected.”
Whatever the reason, the bee then dies, only to start squirming in a week when maggots burst from its head or thorax. They wiggle away and form pupae to become adult flies and start the whole sequence anew. “Usually there’s a half-dozen or so [maggots] but occasionally you get a ‘lucky’ bee,” says Hafernik. “The record we have is 24 maggots coming out of a single bee.”
They’ve been spotted across North America
“ZomBees” have been found along the West Coast from Seattle to San Francisco to Santa Barbara. In a survey of 31 hives in the Bay Area, Hafernik found 77 percent were infected. “ZomBees” have also appeared in Vermont, Pennsylvania, the Hudson Valley, and South Dakota. Given that the parasite ranges all across North America, they could be in many other places.
Hafernik tracks sightings at ZomBee Watch, which geolocates reports from citizen scientists and answers questions like “Are parasitized honeybees more aggressive than normal?” (Unlike Hollywood zombies, they’re not, but still can sting if handled without forceps.)
Getting a bead on the extent of the infestation is important, as honeybees play a huge rolein agricultural pollination and are already beset with afflictions, from blood-sucking Varroa destructormites to pesticides to fungal diseases to dysentery. With all these things harming bee populations, it’s hard to tell what role Apocephalus might play in Colony Collapse Disorder. “Most people who work on Colony Collapse Disorder think it’s caused by a variety of things acting simultaneously on bee colonies,” says Hafernik.
But aside from helping a species and an industry, keeping ZomBees in check is a smart move because, seriously, do you want to live in a world with dying, nocturnal bees kamikazeing into your windows and lamps? “That’s been a big problem for me,” says MacKimmie, who’s moved several of his hives due to complaints—including from one house where exhausted and dying ZomBees piled up so much the landlord had to blast them away with a leaf blower.
“My neighbors have sliding glass doors … and on warm nights they’d leave them open,” he says. “These bees that were infected would hit their porch light, then come in to look for other lights at night. So they had a dozen bees in their house and were kind of freaking out about it.”
The World’s Bee Population Is In Danger, and So Is Our Future
Bees in the nation are slowly dying off, which means the future of humans’ food resource is in grave danger as well. Basically, no bees means no food. The problem is linked to the pesticide called neonicotinoids, which is 6,000 more toxic than DDT.
According to Environment Massachusetts (via CBS Boston), a group aiming to build public awareness on the alarming rate of the decrease in bee population, 40 percent of the world’s bee population die each year.
Providing more credence to the alarming situation, Eco Watch reported that 2.6 million dead bees have been delivered outside the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday.
«In the five years since I started keeping bees, I’ve seen many hives killed by pesticides. If some fundamental things don’t change, it’s going to be really hard for beekeepers to adapt to the environment around us,» said James Cook, Minnesota-based beekeeper, to Eco Watch. Cook has been driving the truck across the country since last Monday.
A coast-to-coast tour called Keep the Hives Alive Tour is now being conducted by environmental groups aiming to raise awareness about the decline in the pollinators’ population. Following the disturbing news, advocates and beekeepers also accumulated more than 4 million signatures to immediately ban the neonicotinoids.
According to My Central Jersey, on Thursday, Peter Marchetta, a canvasser with Environment New Jersey, and Michael Long, owner of Uriah Creek Apiary, also held a «To Bee or Not to Bee» picnic in Buccleuch Park.
Marchetta, who’s also a Rutgers University student from Princeton who’s currently studying environmental policy, said:
«It’s simple. Bees, food, us. It’s very direct and people don’t get that.»
And rightly so.
Omar Ali from Environment Massachusetts says 71 of the world’s top 100 crops need pollination from bees, therefore the insects are essentially the source of 90 percent of the world’s food resource.
With more than 40 percent of honeybee hives dying each year, the U.S. farming and beekeeping industry is also simultaneously losing $2 billion per year. The «To Bee or Not to Bee» picnic also wants to encourage the EPA to ban the neonicotinoids.
Meanwhile, the Keep the Hives Alive Tour wrapped up Wednesday with farmers, beekeepers and food advocates meeting EPA officials and members of Congress and representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They delivered letters from almost 200 businesses and organizations that asks support on sustainable agriculture and the ban of the pesticides.
The issue can only be addressed if immediate action is taken, and fortunately, the outlook seems to be positive.
Stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot have now taken action, agreeing to stop selling plants that have been treated with neonicotinoids.
Know more about this issue in the video below: