Honeybees. Apis mellifera. Innocuous, diligent workers with only one mission in mind: to survive and provide for the hive. You would hardly ever come across a honeybee taking a break or straying from routine. Why, then, are honeybees in California and South Dakota suddenly abandoning their hives at night? Some seem to wander and stumble aimlessly, as if disoriented. Clumps of dead bees inexplicably turn up under light fixtures in the morning.
What’s gotten into the honeybees lately? The ominous, horrific, literal answer is this: parasites.
A species of fly called Apocephalus borealis is responsible for this suspicious bee-havior (I couldn’t resist using at least one bee pun). Here’s how it works. The fly lays eggs inside the body of a honeybee, which then serves as an incubator. The bee becomes a walking, buzzing time bomb until the eggs hatch. As the eggs grow, they suck up nutrients from their surrounding environment (i.e. their bee host). The bees become disoriented as their bodies change from within, often leading them astray from their natural habitats. Eventually, newborn fly larvae crawl out of the honeybee’s body and grow into adult flies, beginning the cycle all over again.
You’d almost expect this scene to come straight out of a science fiction film, but this is a tangible and real process that scientists have been observing.
Hoping to find whether this form of parasitism is distributed widely across North America, the San Francisco State University Department of Biology, San Francisco State University Center for Computing for Life Sciences, and the Natural History Museum of LA County have collaboratively launched ZomBee Watch.
Citizen scientists can contribute to this project by helping collect sick-looking or dead bee specimens to observe whether parasitic pupae emerge. It might sound a bit morbid (harvesting bee carcasses and all), but I say it’s mostly awesome. (Don’t worry, the parasites don’t affect humans…as far as we know.)
More importantly, this project is brand spankin’ new, so every piece of data collected would be immensely helpful to the scientists behind this burgeoning research. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the human race won’t have to deal with its own zombie apocalypse anytime soon. For now, while we have the upper hand, we can help scientists with this valuable study.