Zombie Bees Encroaching on Eastern US

October 13, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Photo credit: Associated Press / Youtube

"Zombie-fied" honeybees are invading the eastern US in greater numbers, threatening the country's already vulnerable bee populations.

A human zombie apocalypse might be the stuff of fantasy, but a real-life epidemic of zombie animals is happening under our noses.

Scientists have known about zombie-fied bees on the western coast of the US, but now more European honeybees in eastern states are falling victim to the parasitic phorid fly known as Apocephalus borealis. This devious fly aggressively stalks honey bees to use them as the perfect incubator for their eggs. Once a female fly spots a target, she lands on the bee's abdomen and goes Alien on it, stabbing it with her ovipositor to inject her eggs. Once the eggs hatch into larvae, they feast on the honeybee's muscles and nervous system, reducing them to senseless husks.

SEE ALSO: Global Warming Particularly Tough on Bees

As the honeybees are devoured from the inside out, they quite literally lose their minds. Perhaps in their last moments as themselves, they abandon their hives at night in an attempt to save their hive-mates from infection. The bees cluster around street lamps, where they stagger about in befuddled circles and can barely stand steady on their legs, let alone fly. Within days, up to 15 maggots burst forth from their honey bee nursery, decapitating the bee in the process. As soon as the phorid pupae mature into flies, they take flight in search of new victims.

Parasitized honey bees were first observed in California in 2012. Biologists from San Francisco State University found that over three quarters of the hives they sampled in the Bay Area contained phorid-infected bees. This group of scientists started the "ZomBee Watch," a citizen science project to monitor the spread of infection up and down the Pacific coast. Beekeepers spotted the first cases of zombified bees in New England in 2014, and the ZomBee Watch reported the first case in New York State on September 1.

The expanding distribution of infected hives is yet another factor in declining honeybee populations in North America. When infected bees abandon their hives, they ramp up the rate of colony collapse disorder — a serious cause for concern, as we depend on honeybees to pollinate our crops. Biologists haven't yet found out how to stop the infection, but keeping track of its spread will help them understand the problem of colony collapse. Anyone can sign up to help by collecting any suspicious-looking bees and watching them for signs of impending maggot-explosion. Find out more at the ZomBee Watch website.

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