Pennsylvania beekeepers intrigued as disoriented ‘zombees’ pervade hives
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.