The Santa Barbara Agricultural Commissioner’s Office recently announced there have been several confirmed sightings of a ‘zombified’ honey bee in downtown Santa Barbara, along with numerous unconfirmed discoveries of the ‘zombees.’
Santa Barbara bees are suffering from a strain of parasite-driven infections, causing the insects to exhibit a number of unusual and potentially crop-killing behaviors such as neglecting their hives, which are vital to local agriculture.
Entomologist Brian Cabrera, who works with the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, said the ‘zombee’ epidemic is the result of an infection from an air-born parasite.
“The bees are zombified because they have been attacked by a parasitic fly. The bee becomes parasitized when a female ‘zombie fly’ lays its eggs inside a bee using a modified structure called an ovipositor,” Cabrera said. “While inside the bee, the eggs hatch out and the zombie fly larvae, which are maggots, begin to consume the contents of the bee.”
According to Cabrera, the insect will begin to display erratic and abnormal behavior as maggots devour its body from the inside out. The bees have displayed a variety of interesting behaviors including hive abandonment, attraction to lights, active conduct at night and clumsy flight patterns, which have earned them the title of ‘zombees.’
Furthermore, Cabrera said the parasitic fly Apocephalus boreas may be responsible for transmitting other pathogens, such as Nosema ceranae and the Twisted Wing virus, to the honey bees.
While researchers have not yet linked the zombified bees to the recent death of 12 hives in Montecito, Cabrera said the continued spread of the disease is another factor contributing to overall decreasing bee populations.
“[The disease can be attributed to the] decline of bee colonies in the U.S.,” Cabrera said. “Honeybees [are] suffering from diseases, parasitic mites, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition and stress.”
While there is no proven way for this parasite-fueled disease to infect humans, Cabrera said humans will still be impacted by economic repercussions of the event as the death of honeybee colonies has killed off large sections of local agriculture.
“Almond trees are completely dependent on honeybees for pollination and California is one of the leading suppliers of almonds in the world,” Cabrera said. “Other crops that are highly dependent on honeybee pollination are apples, avocados, cherries, cucumbers, melons and sunflowers.”
Cabrera added that the ‘zombee’ epidemic would not only be devastating to farmers, but would also result in an inflation of fruit and vegetable costs. Other crops that benefit from honeybee pollination include cauliflower, squash, cabbage and strawberries.
Despite the recent crop-devastating hive deaths observed in Montecito, Santa Barbara has yet to see such events.