Zombie Bees

“Zombie bees” are honey bees infected by a parasitic fly, causing the bee to display uncharacteristic behavior.

 (Contributed Photo)

Local beekeepers say they haven’t noticed any ‘zombie bees’ in their hives yet, but researchers from San Francisco State University tracking their movement are calling for help in determining if the bees make it to Georgia.

So-called ‘zombie bees’ are honey bees infected by a parasitic fly, causing the bee to display uncharacteristic behavior — such as leaving the hive at night and flying around lights like moths.

“One of the things that we see in these bees is they seem to share a disoriented behavior, which is why they’ve been called zombies,” said John Hafernik, a professor of biology at SFSU.

Infected bees have mainly been found on the west coast and Pacific Northwest, but discoveries over the last three years in east coast states and Virginia have prompted researchers to look farther south, Hafernik said.

One or two parasitic bees won’t cause hive failure, but if the infection spreads to more bees the damage can be significant.

“If a large enough number of worker bees were infected and died early, then that would reduce the number of workers in the hive and potentially change the social dynamic,” Hafernik said. “If there was enough disruption than it could cause the hive to fail.”

Randy Rolen, of the Chattooga Beekeepers Association, said he’s yet to notice any here in Georgia.

Igor Legostaev, a Rome beekeeper by hobby, also said he hasn’t discovered any zombie bees specifically — but he has noticed two or three out of the hive at night, flying around lights.

“A few occasional bees that come to the lamp, but not on a large scale that’s for sure,” he said. “Just the occasional individual, not like the whole hive gets crazy or flies away.”

Legostaev said the bees he’s seen at night don’t display the symptoms of zombie bees.

Just as movies portray human zombies as “the walking dead,” the parasite keeps the bee alive while it feeds off its nonessential tissues until there is nothing left.

“They don’t really die. They keep their host alive, better to feed on them then have them dead.” said Keith Delaplane, an entomology professor at the University of Georgia.

Over time the native phorid fly moved from infecting bumblebees and yellow jacket wasps to honey bees, which were imported from Europe, Hafernik said.

Delaplane said these infections are “known to happen, known about it for a long time, but have never occurred at any damaging scale.”

Hafernik said there haven’t been any confirmed records of these bees in Georgia, but he hasn’t received many samples, which is why he created the citizen science project ZomBeeWatch.org.

The website tracks where these infected bees may be located throughout the U.S. The project lets anyone gather research on zombie bees by setting up a light trap at home and reporting their findings to the website. A light trap is a lamp attached to the top of a two-gallon bucket, where zombie bees would be attracted.

“We’d really like to encourage people in Georgia to be on the outlook for any bees acting strangely and attracted to light,” Hafernik said.