The world needs ‘Zombee’ hunters

August 16, 2012

‘Zombee’ season is about to peak in September, and zombee researchers are asking for help to track its spread.

It’s Night of the Living Dead for honeybees infected with a nasty parasitic fly that makes the normally diurnal species go on suicidal night flights. The bees are often found gravitating toward bright lights, and acting odd in other ways, like walking in circles with no sense of direction.

“It’s the flight of the living dead,” says one researcher.

The small fly, Apocephalus borealis, lays eggs in the bee abdomen,  and chemically alters their behavior. Scientists believe this could be the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated bee populations in California and the rest of the country.

So what to do about it? The team from San Francisco State University that published research on the ‘zombees’ earlier this year has set up ZomBeeWatch.org, a citizen science project to track the honeybee parasite.

Researchers are asking people to collect bees that appear to have died underneath outside lights, or are acting strangely under lights, and put them in a container. They can then watch for signs that the bees have been parasitized — the appearance of fly larvae about seven days later. The next step is to upload photos of the bee and submit information on the location, which help the scientists confirm cases and track the spread. ZomBee Watch also has tutorials with step-by-step instructions on this process.

“We’re sort of a mom and pop operation at this point,” says SF State biologist John Hafernik. “But if we can enlist a dedicated group of citizen scientists to help us, together we can answer important questions and help honeybees at the same time.”

Reports of parasitized bees have come in from Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and South Dakota. Hafernik says he’d like to know how widely distributed the bees are across North America.

The zombee team is also tagging infected bees with tiny radio frequency trackers to monitor their movements in and out of a specially designed hive with the hopes of knowing more about how the infection affects foraging behavior and why they ultimately abandon their hives.





About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.

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