Pennsylvania beekeepers intrigued as disoriented ‘zombees’ pervade hives |

Pennsylvania beekeepers intrigued as disoriented ‘zombees’ pervade hives

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Joe Zgurzynski of Country Barn Farm in O’Hara said the reproductive rate of a healthy queen bee far surpasses the loss from the occasional “zombee.”

The Grenzbergs were doing homework in their kitchen when they first heard the “ting.”

Sherry Grenzberg looked to the window, and it happened again.


She looked closer and saw what was making the sound — a honeybee flying into the window, over and over. Grenzberg, an experienced beekeeper, assumed the bee was aiming for the kitchen light. That tipped her off that something was wrong.

“It was night. They don’t leave their hives at night,” Grenzberg said about the September incident at her home in Mountain Top, near Scranton.

The worker bee, likely the first of its kind reported in Pennsylvania, had been infected by the larvae of a fly.

A San Francisco researcher believes the infection, and subsequent erratic behavior, might be because of messed up circadian rhythms in the brains of worker bees. The bees leave their hives and never return, explained John Hafernik, professor of biology at San Francisco State University.

He calls them “zombees” because they fly around disoriented before dying.

He wants the public’s help in documenting them.

“It’s ‘Alien,’ ” he said, describing how the infection is akin to what happened in the 1979 sci-fi horror film. “It’s a parasite that kills its host.”

The discovery, undocumented in Western Pennsylvania, intrigues Hafernik, since Apocephalus borealis — a species of North American parasitoid phorid fly — long has infected bumblebees and paper wasps. The fly injects its eggs into the bee, leaving it to die as larvae grow and eat the bees’ insides.

The species jump could be emblematic of a parasite adapting to find prey, he said.

Furthermore, the infection could affect the structured life of the honeybee and its hive, he said.

“If infestation rates get up there, you could see a change in the social structure of hives.” he said.

Honeybees were brought to the United States from Europe to aid in pollination of agricultural crops. They live in cooperative groups. Worker bees are young females that forage for food and nectar and pollinate plants ranging from almonds to apples.

According to the American Beekeeping Federation, one-third of foods Americans eat somehow come from a bee.

Still, the fly infection should not be a “major problem,” said Stephen Repasky, a certified master beekeeper and founder of Burgh Bees in Pittsburgh.

Joe Zgurzynski of Country Barn Farm in O’Hara, said the reproductive rate of a healthy queen far surpasses the loss from the occasional mind-altered bee.

“They produce so many worker bees at such a high rate, if there is any infection, they can outcompete it,” Zgurzynski said.

Penn State University entomologist Christina Grozinger said poor nutrition from the loss of flowering plants and mite infestations are much bigger concerns.

Hafernik, who described the infection in 2008 after watching bee after bee become sick and disoriented outside his California office, cautioned against writing off the fly.

In addition to molecular biology studies he conducts, he started a citizen scientist effort called Zombee Watch to give people who see confused bees a chance to report them and get them tested.

It’s how Sherry Grenz-berg learned she had “zombees” in one of her five hives.

“There was a spider web in front of an outdoor light,” she said, describing her second encounter with the bees. “I watched five or six bees throw themselves into it, get tangled and do it again. They’re just not themselves.”

Megha Satyanarayana is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.