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Newly Detected Parasite Turns Northwest Honey Bees Into 'Zombees'

There's more trouble for your hard-working backyard honey bee. Researchers have confirmed the first cases of "zombee" bees in Washington state and in the Portland area. Infection by a parasite prompts the bees to embark on what's being called a "flight of the living dead."

The initial Washington detection came from an observant beekeeper in the Seattle suburb of Kent.

"The odd thing is they're attracted to light. Bees normally aren't attracted to light. And they're flying at night. Bees don't normally fly at night," says Mark Hohn. He keeps bees as a hobby.

Hohn sent some of his casualties to entomologists at Washington State University and San Francisco State. They confirmed infection by a tiny parasitic fly.

"After it lays its eggs in the bee, the eggs hatch," Hohn explains. "Then the maggot is inside the bee. It's actually eating the inside of the bee and it affects their motor skills."

Eventually, the disoriented bees flutter to the ground and die.

 A "zombie fly" (Apocephalus borealis) lays its eggs inside a honey bee. Photo courtesy SFSU
A "zombie fly" (Apocephalus borealis) lays its eggs inside a honey bee. Photo courtesy SFSU

Before this, honey bees in the West were already under assault from the still mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder. Researchers doubt this newly detected pest is a primary cause of those abandoned beehives.

Currently, there is no treatment to ward off the parasitic "zombie" fly.

San Francisco State University researchers are inviting Northwest beekeepers and the general public to be on the lookout for oddly-behaving honey bees. They want help figuring how widespread the parasitic infection is.

You can get instructions for how to participate in this crowd sourced science investigation at

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.