Flight of the Bumble-zombees

September 27, 2012

Eva Gusnowski

Is the zombie apocalypse upon us? Not yet, but the zombee apocalypse apparently is.

In the United States, something called “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) has been documented, whereby bees have been found to abandon their colonies and the hive has collapsed. This is of great concern not only because of the production of delicious honey, but because bees are a major pollinator of a multitude of plants, including crops. It has been proposed that a number of parasites and mites may be the cause of CCD and in fact these do result in a decrease in bee health. But why the bees simply abandon their hives has been a mystery.


Bumblebees and honeybees in the United States have been undergoing some pretty rough interactions with the fly Apocephalus borealis. And I do mean rough because A. borealis is an actual parasite of bees. Parasitism occurs when there is a non-mutual relationship between two organisms, where one benefits at the expense of the other. In the case of A. borealis, the adult fly lays its eggs inside the body of the bee and once hatched, the larvae essentially eat the bee from the inside out. Once the bee dies the larvae escape from the bee corpse and pupate nearby, looking similar to little kernels of brown rice. Two to three weeks later, adult flies emerge and look for their next victim.


Aside from the obvious body snatchers and alien references, what’s really creepy is that once the maggots hatch inside of the bee, they seem to alter it's behavior. Parasitized bees were found to leave the hives at night (even in rainy weather), and were drawn towards lights. At these areas, the bees exhibited strange disoriented walking behaviors and problems balancing on their legs (ZOMBEES!). Following this period of what can only be described as zombie-like behavior, the bees simply stayed where they were and died. Now as to whether it’s the maggots that are actually controlling the behavior of the bees or whether the bee knowingly leaves the colony to prevent infection of the rest of the colony is an unknown. Regardless, the “flight of the living dead,” as it is called, is consistent with the night-flying and hive abandonment behavior noted with CCD.

The spread of Apocephalus borealis in multiple states in the United States has instigated research into this parasite and the role it may play in CCD. The parasite has also been found to be a carrier of other infectious bee agents and may contribute to CCD by doing more than creating zombees.

Add zombees to the fungally infected zombie ants and other mind-controlling parasites (even those controlling mammalian behavior), and you’ve got a good recipe for a B-list horror movie.



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