Flight of the Living Dead – The Tiny Fly That Turns Bees into Zombies

Human zombies might be a figment of the imagination, but ‘zombie bees’ actually exist. They are ‘created’ when regular honeybees get infested with a particular type of parasite. The bees begin to display highly erratic and bizarre behavior that’s very zombie-like. These infested bees were first discovered in 2008 in California by John Hafernik, a professor of biology at San Francisco State University.

Ever since the initial discovery, zombie bee-sightings have been reported in Oregon, Washington State, California and South Dakota. According to Professor Hafernik, “They fly around in a disoriented way, get attracted to light, and then fall down and wander around in a way that’s sort of reminiscent of zombies in the movies. Sometimes we’ve taken to calling it, when they leave their hives, ‘the flight of the living dead.’”

The culprit here is the Apocephalus borealis, a parasitic fly that is known to implant its eggs in ants. The fly larvae live off the ants’ brains, dissolve their connective tissues and eventually finish off the ants. Researchers now have reason to believe that the flies have found a new home for their eggs – European honeybees that are common in the United States. The flies lay their eggs in the bees that eventually hatch, wreaking havoc in their hosts’ bodies.


Photo: A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus Borealis (scientific study)

The zombie-like behavior begins as soon as the bees have been infested with eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the bees drop dead within five minutes. Several bees in commercial hives have been affected by this phenomenon. 24 out of 31 sites in the San Francisco Bay area have reported honeybees parasitized by A. borealis. Thankfully, there isn’t a real threat of zombie (bee) invasion happening any time soon. At least, that’s what Professor Hafernik believes.

Even farmers, who rely on the bees to pollinate fields and produce honey, haven’t reported widespread infestation yet. But most of the sightings were from the country’s West Coast. In Vermont, hardware store employee and part time beekeeper Anthony Cantrell said he discovered the zombie bees after noticing a few dead bees outside his home. When he came across a ZomBeeWatch.org, a website run by Hafernik and his colleagues, Cantrell realized that some of the bees might have become infested.


Photo: A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus Borealis (scientific study)

“I just thought, great, one more thing that the poor honey bee has to deal with,” he said. Cantrell quickly escalated the issue to Steve Parise, an agriculture production specialist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. The issue was discussed in January at a meeting of the Vermont Beekeepers Association. For now, they have decided to trap bees to further investigate the zombie threat.

Lab research has suggested that the female A. borealis is usually the culprit – she injects her eggs into a honeybee’s abdomen soon after coming into contact with the bee. Seven days later, as many as 25 mature larvae emerge from the area between the bee’s head and thorax. In the wild, up to 13 larvae were observed bursting out of a single honeybee. These infested bees in the wild abandon their hives and fly towards light sources, where the strange behavior begins. They walk around in circles and are unable to stand up. Just before death, the bees sit in one place and curl up.


Photo: Brian V. Brown

“They kept stretching their legs out and then falling over,” said Andrew Core, a biology grad student at San Francisco State. “It really painted a picture of something like a zombie.” Core, along with his colleagues, discovered that the honeybees were most likely to be infected by the parasite when they left their hives to forage at night. They also discovered fly pupae near dead bees at the bottom of their lab hive. This means that A. borealis can actually multiply within a hive and might even infect the queen bee.

Currently, researchers aren’t sure why the flies seem to be affecting the bees’ behavior so much. They also have reason to believe that the infested bees might actually be leaving the hive to protect other bees from the same fate. Or, the hive mates might be sensing the danger and driving the infested bees out. “A lot of touching and tasting goes on in a hive,” said Professor Hafernik. “And it’s certainly possible that their co-workers are finding them and can tell there’s something wrong with them.”


As Hafernik puts it rather succinctly, “It’s sort of a combination of zombies and aliens mixed together.”

The Apocephalus borealis isn’t the only insect who can turn its victims into zombies. The jewel wasp is also most famous for its capacity to turn cockroaches into mindless slaves.

Sources: LiveScience, ABC News

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