Infected ‘zombie’ bees buzzing around Bay

For years, honeybees around the world have been dying off, and nobody could figure out why.

While most pointed fingers primarily at fungi and viruses, a new study by San Francisco State researchers shares a chilling new theory about a possible cause of honey bee colony collapse.

Bees are being preyed upon by parasitic flies who lay eggs in the their abdomen. Eventually, the maturing eggs kill the bees, with the carcass providing food for the emerging larvae.

But the fascinating part is what happens to the bees before they die. Something about the eggs drives the bees crazy, causing them to engage in a variety of bizarre, zombie-like behavior.

The infected bees abandon their hives, walk around in circles, and become attracted to light in what the researchers call a “flight of the living dead.” Then, they sit in one place, sometimes curling up on the ground before they succumb to the maturing eggs.

“When we observed the bees for some time—the ones that were alive—we found that they walked around in circles, often with no sense of direction,” said Andrew Core, lead researcher and a graduate biology student at SF State.

Infected bees were found in 24 of the 31 hives surveyed by researchers — 75 percent — in San Francisco, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties. No infected bees were found in hives examined in the South Bay.

Honey bees are a crucial part of California’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, pollinating most of the state’s fruit, nut and vegetable crops.

Researchers say they plan to use tools like tiny radio transmitters and video monitoring to further study how and why the bees are becoming infected.

The Merc reports that researchers found the infected bees at hives in San Francisco, Benicia, Concord, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Larkspur, Mill Valley, Oakland, Orinda, San Rafael and Walnut Creek. No infected bees were surveyed in Los Gatos, Mount Hamilton, Saratoga, or San Jose.