Monday, October 27, 2014


No, I didn't misspell that, or come up with some clever portmanteau on my own.  Some one else did that.  Wherever the word came from, in our kitchen, we Garden residents are undoubtedly under a zombee attack and have been since late last summer!

I've been meaning to write about this for a long time, but like much of this blog it takes me a long time to get to it.  Tonight I hope to watch the latest episode of one my favorite TV shows, The Walking Dead. I'm using my excitement of the show to inspire me to finally put some words down on the screen.

Night of the Flying Dead!

So last summer, every night one or more bees would somehow end up in our kitchen, buzz around aimlessly for a bit until they collapsed on some surface, or we managed to get them back outside.  After awhile, we realized if we left our kitchen light on and were patient, the wayward bees would eventually find their way to the light bowl where they would die within minutes. I had heard or read something about this so I bagged one of the bees and sure enough, a few days later the dead bee was not alone in the sealed Ziplock bag.  There were 6 or 7 tiny pupae in the bag with it.  My bees were turning into zombees!
A year's worth of zombees

The Culprit? Apocephalus borealis
While bees are out foraging, they are sometimes preyed upon by the phorid fly, Apocephalus borealis.  This fly doesn't eat the bees, rather the female lands on the abdomen of the bee, inserts her ovipositor (that's her egg laying appendage) into the bee and lays several eggs inside the bee (anyone thinking Alien?) When the eggs hatch and begin eating the helpless bee from the inside, she is compelled to leave the hive at night.  Disoriented she flies around apparently aimlessly other than being attracted to light. You can see how this odd behavior led someone to coin the term, zombee.  Without the warmth of the hive and suffering from the  parasites growing inside her, she is truly a member of the walking, or flying dead, if you will. The phorid maggots continue their meal of bee innards until they crawl out of the carcass and pupate.  A few weeks later they emerge as adults, mate, and then the females seek out their next victim. The cycle continues!

The bees fly around like zombies, but they don't actually seek out the flesh of their fellow bees.  Rather, the bees are the raw flesh for the zombie fly. In fact, leaving their hive rather than an act of aggression, could be a form of self sacrifice - leaving the hive when they recognize they are sick in order to not infect the rest of the hive.  Scientists, including John Hafernik who was the chair of the SFSU Biology department while I was a student there, are working on answering questions like these about Apocephalus borealis and the honey bee.

once I poured them out onto the plate all the pupae become visible
up close - doesn't look much different than a butterfly chrysalis - but what emerges is anything but beautiful! At least not if your a bee!

ZomBee Watch
Also for about a year I've been meaning to sign up and participate in this citizen science project, ZomBee Watch.  ZomBee watch relies on regular folk like you and me, to record and report on what is happening with the bees in their neighborhood, whether they are infected by Apocephalus borealis, or not.  Have you noticed bees at night in your neighborhood?  You can help, too.  Start by going to and see if its something you're interested in. Here's a pretty cool video about Dr. Hafernick and his work with Apocephalus borealis:

Here's a funny story about John Hafernik:  Back when I was getting my MA in biology I had a party for the biology department.  When Dr. Hafernik arrived, he realized he had been to our house before - for a party in the 70's! He was friends of my parents friends. I was afraid to ask for details.  I'll let what went on at the party remain a mystery.

Is this why bees are disappearing around the world?!
When I first realized my bees were infected with Apocephalus borealis I was worried for the health of my hives.  It was around that time that the Easter Hive (that was my second swarm I captured) perished.  I wondered if this was a major factor in colony collapse disorder.  I soon learned, however, that Apocephalus borealis is not a serious threat to a hive.  The bees that are infected are the foraging bees who have already lived much of their life anyway.  But when you add it to the long list that honey bees have to deal with: verora mites, chalk brood, foul brood, drought, mono crops, pesticides, herbicides (neonictinoids being the worst - check this website for common garden products to avoid:, predators - the list goes on! Add Apocephalus borealis to this list and it just may be too much for some hives.  Scientists are coming to the understanding that there is no single culprit for CCD and thus no silver bullet to prevent it.  But it also means there are lots of little things we can do to help our bee friends: plant pollinator friendly plants, don't use insecticides, if you live in an area of dry summers keep a bowl of water and marbles out near your flowers, and become a citizen scientist to help further our understanding of Apocephalus borealis.  
You can also support your local beekeeper! Your local beekeeper is working hard to take good care of their bees and their bees are taking care of you.  And speaking of your local beekeeper, I'm still selling honey every Wednesday between 4:30 and 6:00.  But probably for only another few weeks, as I'll be running out of honey for the year soon.  I hope I see you here soon!

Stay Sweet!

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