Recruits needed for "Zombee" hunting

Infected honey bee
Infected honey bee

Forget Brad Pitt. John Hafernik is the one you want to call this summer if you see a ZomBee.

Yes, the spelling is a little different, but this invasion is a real ecological threat, says the San Francisco State University biologist. “ZomBees” are honey bees that have been infected with a tiny fly parasite. The infected bees abandon their hives and seek out the night, congregating under lights and staggering around in bouts of “zombie-like” behavior before dying.

Since 2011, Hafernik has been tracking the plight of the ZomBees to find out how widespread the infections are and whether they pose a serious threat to honey bee populations. Last year, he and his colleagues launched the ZomBeeWatch.org website to encourage people everywhere to report their sightings of ZomBees.

Thanks to their efforts, new cases in the ZomBee outbreak have been confirmed at several sites along the coast in the Pacific Northwest, Hafernik said. “So far we’ve gotten positive samples from Santa Barbara in the south all the way to Seattle in the north.”

It’s a good start, but Hafernik needs a bigger and well-trained army of ZomBee hunters to discover the true extent of this outbreak. His team at SF State has put together a series of YouTube videos to help would-be hunters learn more about capturing ZomBees and uploading their findings to the website.

This crash course for hunters includes information on how to identify a ZomBee, how to build a simple light trap that lures in the disoriented bees and how to report their findings to ZomBee headquarters.

Building the case for a ZomBee infection takes a little bit of time, according to the videos. The researchers encourage hunters to collect dead bees in a jar or clear plastic envelope and watch it for about a week. If the bee is a ZomBee, they may see the gruesome finale of the fly larvae bursting through the neck of the bee and crawling around the container.

No one knows yet how the flies lead the bees to their bizarre end. “It may be that the fly is somehow manipulating its host bee, or the bees’ behavior might just be a byproduct of the parasitism,” Hafernik said. “That’s one thing we hope to find out with more observations and more experiments.”

He said that peak infection season seems to be late summer into early fall, so it’s not too late to join the nearly 100,000 hunters registered at http://www.ZombeeWatch.org.





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