09 January 2012

Zombie bees

Ever wondered why honey bees are disappearing off the face of the earth? Well, a researcher may have stumbled on one of the many possible answers for the rapid decline of bees.


Ever wondered why honey bees are disappearing off the face of the earth? Well, a researcher may have stumbled on one of the many possible answers for the rapid decline of these vital insects.

According to a study published in the journal Public Library of Science ONE (PLoS One), a particular fly – the phorid fly Apocephalus borealis – is the culprit. The phorid fly injects a parasite into the abdomen of the honey bee, causing it to become confused and show hive abandonment behaviour. Ultimately, the parasite kills its bee host. The parasitised bees' odd behaviour has earned them the name “zombie bees”. When bees die, they usually curl up; however, with the parasite, they keep moving their legs but are too weak to walk properly, giving them "zombie-like” motion.

What’s even more unusual is that infected bees leave the hive during the night and seek out light. Once a bees leaves the hive, the flies’ parasitic hatchlings exit through the host's head or abdomen seven days later. The sight of larvae thus emerging is like a scene out of Alien.

So far there have only been recordings of zombie bees in the United States, in South Dakota and California. But if this is indeed a growing problem, the existence of honey bees could very well be in danger.

Effects of the decrease

A decrease in honey bees means that crop production will suffer. It is widely known that honey-producing insects are also terrific pollinators.

Watch this clip to see the importance of bees:

The demise of honey bees would also obviously mean a honey shortage in the near future. Honey is known as nature’s sweetener and has many health benefits. Its anti-bacterial properties make it a great antiseptic and it can help soothe cuts and burns.

One of the study’s authors, John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University, said that scientists do not know how to stop the parasitisation from happening because they do not know where it happens.

"We assume it's while the bees are out foraging, because we don't see the flies hanging around the bee hives. But it's still a bit of a black hole in terms of where it's actually happening," said Hafernik.

The researchers are attempting to solve the mystery by attaching tiny radio tags to see if the bee leaves its hive voluntarily after infection, or if the hive senses the infection and kicks the unfortunate individual out.

According to PLoS ONE the phorid fly has been known to infect bumble bees as well.

Here's another clip expressing the importance of honey bees:

(Kyle Boshoff, Health24, January 2012)

(References: Plos ONE; a new threat to honey bees, study authors: Andrew Core, Charles RunckelJonathan Ivers,Christopher QuockTravis SiapnoSeraphina DeNault,Brian BrownJoseph DeRisiChristopher D. SmithJohn Hafernik; Discovery News, content provided from AFP; History of honey by Peggy Trowbride Filippone;

(Videos: Youtube; Posted by PBS and Snookfish2)


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