Flight of the Living Dead

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Honey bees infected by Apocephalus borealis larvae exhibit “zombie-like” behavior before dying. The larvae then pops off the head and emerges from the body.

Erik Jorgensen, Staff Writer

A zombie apocalypse has arrived that may completely destroy civilization as we know it – and these zombies can fly.

Apocephalus borealis, a tiny parasitoid fly, adds to the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) facing our nation’s honey bees. Fly eggs injected into the bee’s abdomen grow into larvae causing erratic behavior in the hapless honey bee, such as walking in circles on the ground or flying at night. Eventually the larvae grow until the bee’s head pops off and they crawl out. In fact, apo cephalus is Latin for “separate the head” or “decapitate.” Whether or not A. borealis actually contributes to CCD, it poses its own danger to honey bees.

CCD lacks a single identifiable cause, but the effects are easily recognizable: empty beehives without corpses or any forensic evidence explaining why all the bees disappeared. Speculations regarding CCD’s origin include Varroa mites and other parasites, viruses, cellphone transmissions, pesticides or some combination of factors. According to Western Farm Press, since 2006 when CCD was first identified in the U.S., about one third of our bees die over the winters with some beekeepers reporting losses of 90 to 100 percent.

Rachel Spaeth, Garden Coordinator at Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa, put the problem into perspective. “If anybody likes fruits: apples, cherries, pears; all of those are pollinated by bees. Since bees are already there doing this service for us, we don’t put a monetary value on it because it has always happened that way. But if we had to take the manpower to do all the pollinating ourselves, what kind of economic impact would that have?” Spaeth said

Spaeth graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College with a degree in biology, certificates in environmental horticulture and sustainable agriculture and is currently researching her master’s degree in Micropollenoscopy at Sonoma State University.

“There are some places in China that have actually experienced complete eradication of bees due to inappropriate pesticide use,” Spaeth said. “Now they have to go through and hand-pollinate things. That’s a case where they’ve been hit with the economics of it.”

China Daily reported in February 2012 that Sichuan province relies on hand-pollination for its pear crop, saying, “A hive of bees can pollinate three million flowers a day, but a person can pollinate only 30 trees.”

Since honey bees pollinate so many flowers and food crops, the economic fallout of their demise could reach into billions of dollars. California’s 800,000 acres of almond orchards produced two billion pounds of almonds in 2012 valued at $4 billion, up from $740 million in 2002. Each acre requires two bee colonies of 20,000 bees per hive to achieve adequate pollination in early March. The approximately 30 billion bees needed for California’s almond crop alone requires help from commercial beekeepers nationwide.

Modern migratory beekeeping started in the winter of 1907 when Nephi Miller shipped his bees by train from frozen Cache Valley, Utah to sunny California. Today, commercial beekeepers truck their hives cross-country following different short blossom seasons.

Randell Verhoek, president of the American Honey Producers Association, says, “Close to half of the commercial bees that are raised for honey production and almond pollination are sent to the Midwest in the spring/summer. Commercial beekeepers try to make up extra colonies in anticipated higher-than-normal winter losses. This is necessary to meet the demand for honey production and pollination demands.”

Verhoek went on two almond orchard tours during the 2013 almond blossom season where he received several insider reports. “Many hives in almonds were substandard. We were easily 100,000 hives short. Many other thousands of acres had weak bees, or substandard.”

BBC News described the same season as the biggest single pollination event on Earth.

“One of the biggest concerns [for beekeepers] are pesticides,” Verhoek said. “If the new classes of neonicatinoids are indeed killing bees we are in real trouble. Beekeepers understand that farmers need pesticides to protect their crop and have a right to do so. It is not fair for a farmer to kill pests on his crops with insecticides if it ends up killing bees in the area.” Verhoek notes Varroa mites have become resistant to miticides developed for them. “Trying to kill a bug on a bug makes it extremely challenging.”

John Hafernik, professor of biology at San Francisco State University, said, “SRJC students should be concerned about the increased number of failing honey bee hives because honey bees are responsible for pollinating many of our most important agricultural crops.”

Hafernik accidentally discovered A. borealis infesting honey bees instead of their usual host, bumblebees. Seeing bees walking erratically in circles “zombie-like” outside the SFSU biology building, he gathered the bees in vials to feed to his praying mantis but forgot one on his desk. When he rediscovered the vial a week later, it was filled with A. borealis larvae. To discover the extent of this problem nationwide, Hafernik created a “citizen scientist” site for beekeepers and volunteers, ZomBeeWatch.org.

Others downplay the media hype of the buzzword. “The term ‘zombie bees’ was made up by some journalist,” said Rosalind James, Ph.D., research leader at Utah State University’s “BeeLab” and USDA Pollinating Insects Research Unit. “Making a great story to excite people is not really our mission. We want to understand what is really going on and then help solve the problem.”

Andrew Gough, author of “The Hidden Hive of History – The Forgotten God of the Ancients” and editor-in-chief of The Heretic Magazine, says, “There is no mystery why the bees are dying: CCD is the result of pesticides. Large pharmaceutical corporations’ products not only weaken the bees’ immune systems, they have an agenda to replace the bees’ natural products with their own.” Gough says media hype about cellphone transmissions interfering with bee colonies is misdirection to deflect the role of pesticides.

“The loss that CCD presents to our society is far greater than the multi-billion dollar industry that bees and their essential byproducts represent,” Gough said. “While this is a horrific reality, the potential loss of the honey bee represents the loss of the greatest tradition of our world. The honey bee is the most deified god or goddess that has ever existed. To render it extinct would be to murder the goddess herself.”

The situation is not yet hopeless. “One way that SRJC students can help in investigating honey bee losses is to join our ‘ZomBee Watch’ citizen science project to help determine how big a role the zombie fly A. borealis plays in honey bee declines,” Hafernik said. “They can also help by planting bee-friendly plants in their gardens to help provide resources for our many species of native bees and for the introduced [European] honey bee.”

Verhoek agrees. Writing in an email, “any time students can bee advocates for the bees is a good thing,” he said.

For more information, join the SRJC Bee Club on Facebook.