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Zombie Bees Headed Our Way?

Keep an eye out for disoriented bees circling streetlights far from their hive. They could be "zombees"

The researchers who discovered “zombie-like” bees infected with a deadly fly parasite want Healdsburgians to look for similar bees in their own back yards.

San Francisco State University Professor of Biology John Hafernik, and colleagues from the SF State Department of Biology and the Center for Computing for the Life Sciences, launched ZomBeeWatch.org, a citizen science project to report possible sightings of the parasitized bees.

How do you spot a "zombee," as the researchers call them? Look for them congregating near outside lights, moving in increasingly erratic circles before dying.

These are the insects who have been parasitized by the Apocephalus borealis fly, and abandoned their hives.

ZomBeeWatch offers tutorials on how to become a zombee hunter, complete with step-by-step instructions for monitoring and collecting bees, building a light trap and uploading data. 

The ZomBeeWatch site asks people to collect bees that appear to have died underneath outside lights, or appear to be behaving strangely under the lights, in a container. They can then watch for signs that indicate the bee was parasitized by the fly, which usually deposits its eggs into a bee’s abdomen.

About seven days after the bee dies, fly larvae push their way into the world from between the bee’s head and thorax and form brown, pill-shaped pupae that are equivalent to a butterfly’s chrysalis.

If it looks like their sample contains hatched parasites, “zombee hunters” can upload photos of their sample’s contents to confirm whether they have found a parasitized bee. Along with information about the location of the photographed bee, the images will help the scientists build a better map of the honeybee infection. 

The phenomenon was first discovered on the SF State campus by Hafernik and colleagues, and reported last year in the research journal PLoS ONE.

Since then there have been reports of parasitized bees in Redwood City, Santa Barbara and South Dakota. Hafernik said, “what we’d really like to see is if this parasitism is distributed widely across North America.”

Hafernik says he has timed the launch of the site for when the parasitized population begins its seasonal rise. “Right now is still the low season for parasitized bees,” he explained, “but they will start ramping up in August.

"In the San Francisco Bay Area, infections peak in September through January. We hope to learn about the timing of infections in other areas of North America.”

Hafernik and his collaborators are eager to learn as much as they can about the parasite, since it may be an emerging and potentially costly threat to honeybee colonies, especially those that cross from state to state to be used in commercial pollination.

"We’re sort of a mom and pop operation at this point,” Hafernik said about ZomBee Watch, “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.”

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