- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
What do you think of when someone says "zombies?"
Students sitting inattentively in class? A souless body? Or a honey bee infested with parasitic flies?
A Zombie, according to Wikipedia, is a term used "to denote an animated corpse brought back to life by mystical means, such as witchcraft....Since the late 19th century, zombies have acquired notable popularity, especially in North American and European folklore. In modern times, the term 'zombie' has been applied to an undead race in horror fiction, largely largely drawn from George A. Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.
Honey bees infested with parasitic flies are the latest organisms tabbed "zombies."
San Francisco State University researchers, in work published Jan. 3 in the Public Library of Science (PLoS One) journal, noted that when a parasitic phorid fly (Apocephalus borealis) infests honey bees, the bees fly around like zombies and cannot return to their hives.
Immediately, the paper received more than 10,000 hits.
Joseph DeRisi, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, UC San Francisco, touched on pests and parasites of bees when he discussed his own research Jan. 9 at UC Davis.
"If you want to get 10,000 hits on your PLoS paper, use the word, zombie," DeRisi quipped, as the audience roared. When the laughter died down, he deadpanned: "I'm going to use in my next paper." (As of 7:30 p.m. today, Jan. 13, the accesss count soared to 32,443.)
When the parasitic fly lays its eggs in bees, this causes the bee to "night forage and travel to light," DeRisi said.
"This is a good high school experiment you can do at home," DeRisi said. "Find dead or dying bees beneath a light and place them in a jar and see what happens."
DeRisi added that "I do not believe that phorids are responsible for colony collapse disorder (CCD). It's not a major contributor."
"Although zombie bees are cool, they're not responsible for CCD."
DeRisi, a molecular biologist/biochemist and a 2004 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant (also known as "the genius award") designed and programmed a groundbreaking tool for finding (and fighting) viruses -- the ViroChip, a DNA microarray that test for the presence of all known viruses in one step.
Other bee experts share his views on that the parasitic fly is not a dominant factor in CCD. The parasitic fly also lays its eggs in bumble bees (which also could be described as "zombies."
Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology believes that the bee's immune system is already depressed, and it's basically "easy pickings" for a fly searching to lay its eggs in an organism.
Perhaps the bees are already dead or dying when the flies find their hosts? Perhaps honey bees with healthy immune systems are not victims?
Could be. But the bees of interest now are zahm-bees!