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Scientists Hoping to Stop Spread of 'Zombees'

July 18, 2016

Bee Colony Collapse, Honey Bees

The threats honeybees face this day in age are many, and it’s left researchers on the defensive in terms of finding solutions to save bee populations, whether the threat is colony collapse disorder, pathogens, varroa mites, malnutrition, or pesticides. Considering how important honeybees are, any new threat to them is given full weight and the seriousness it deserves, and one new threat researchers have grown considerably worried about is that of parasites causing bees to exhibit zombie-like behavior before they're killed, earning these bees the title of 'zombees.'

The parasite causing zombie-like behavior in honeybees is a small fly that lays eggs in worker honeybees’ abdomens—when the eggs hatch, fly larvae burst from the bees’ necks and grow into flies that then infect more bees in the hive. Scientists call infected bees ‘zombees’ because they abandon their hives and eventually die after the period of zombie-like behavior in which the fly egg incubates before hatching. Zombees have already been discovered in Virginia, and researchers tracking the parasite across the country are have gotten to the point of asking local ‘citizen scientists’ to confirm whether or not it has spread south of Virginia to North Carolina.

John Hafernik, an insect ecologist at San Francisco State University and lead scientist of the ZomBee Watch project, says zombees can be been found walking on sidewalks during the day or flying around lights at night like moths. Even though beekeepers are most likely to notice when bees behave erratically, Hafernik has said anyone can contribute to the project and help stop the spread of these parasites: “We expect infection rates will rise during the summer and peak in the fall. We are already receiving reports of honeybees being hard hit this year in New York’s Hudson Valley…We need citizen scientists to join the ZomBee Watch team, to be on the lookout for honeybees acting strangely and report their observations.”

According to www.zombeewatch.org, citizen scientists should place suspected zombees in a plastic container with tweezers—a zombee may sting, but it is just a standard bee sting (it won’t turn you into a zombie obviously). Participating citizen scientists should keep bees for several days to check if fly larvae emerge, at which point they should send the bees and larvae to the researchers in California. Such practices not only help prevent the spread of this fly parasite, but they also prevent viral infections from spreading through hives as well, according to Hafernik.

Working with citizen scientists and the power stemming from “getting this number of people and minds involved” is, according to Hafernik, vital to science, though he wishes the circumstances with honeybees were different. With so many problems facing one species that provides so much, any efforts to not let one threat spread are worth it.

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