The Attack of the “ZomBees”

Drag your bones toward more Halloween-themed citizen science! SciStarter has been paying attention to the zombee apocalypse from ZomBee Watch’s early days. Here are some important updates on the project and details on how you can get involved.


Have you noticed bees behaving in a strange ‘zombie’-like dazed manner near lights, especially at night? Then, they may be infected by a parasitic fly that affects their behaviour and ZomBee Watch, a project started by Professor John Hafernik and colleagues, needs your help. Until now, known infections had only happened on the west coast, but citizen scientists just recently spotted infected bees for the first time in New England, which means the infection is spreading.

Zombees were initially discovered at San Francisco State University by Professor Hafernik. “I first discovered infected honey bees by accident in late 2008 when I began noticing a large number of disoriented and dying honey bees on campus,” he said. After picking a few in a vial and leaving them for a few days, Professor Hafernik found small brown fly pupae inside the jar. “I sent a sample to Brian Brown at the Natural History Museum of LA County and he identified the flies as Apocephalus borealis,” said Professor Hafernik.

Later, Professor Hafernik figured it out that infected bees were leaving their hive at night, attracted to nearby lights. It turned out that flies can inject eggs into the abdomen of a bee, and when eggs hatch, small maggots start eating the bee’s flight muscles and internal organs. At some point, the bee’s behaviour changes as well and they feel compelled to fly at night. After leaving the hive, they live only for a few hours, and about five to seven days later, mature maggots emerge from the dead bee. “We’ve observed as many as 16 maggots emerging from a single bee,” said Professor Hafernik. “At this point there is no way to treat or prevent infection, but we hope that as we learn more about how flies recognize their hosts, that we can find a way to control infections.”

Professor Hafernik explained how this was an ideal project for citizen scientists. “Given the increasing public concern about declines in bees and the fact that infected bees showed such unusual behaviour that could be tracked by the public, crowd sourcing the project seemed like an excellent way to gather data quickly and for citizen scientists of all ages to make important contributions to research on honey bee health.”

Participants do not need any special background or training to get started. “We provide video and PowerPoint-based tutorials on our website to get them started,” said Prof Hafernik. If participants find zombees, they’re asked to place them in a jar, and take a photo to upload onto the website. It’s recommended to keep the bee for 7-10 days to confirm if maggots emerge. If they do, participants need to take another photo and again uploaded it to the website. For records in new areas, participants may be asked to send a sample by mail to double check identification.

This is an ongoing strategy and if you wish to participate, go to the website now and register. The window of opportunity to observe these bees is going to close very quickly as winter approaches, but there is still time to help with this project.

Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

Categories: Animals, Citizen Science, Insects, Nature & Outdoors