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Posted: January 31, 2014

'Zombie' bees put East Coast beekeepers on edge

Cox Media Group Web Staff

ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. —

Are the Flying Dead taking their invasion to the East Coast?

Vermont beekeepers face mite infestations, extreme temperature swings and the possibility of colony collapse. Last fall, a new threat emerged: zombie bees.

Beekeeper Anthony Cantrell of Burlington discovered the "Zom-bees" in his hive in October, the first time they'd been found in the eastern United States.

John Hafernik, a professor from San Francisco State University, discovered the first zombie bees in 2008. A fly called Apocephalus borealis attaches itself to the bee and injects its eggs, which grow inside the bee, Hafernik said. Scientists believe it causes neurological damage resulting in erratic, jerky movement and night activity, "like a zombie," Hafernik said by phone Tuesday.

"They fly around in a disoriented way, get attracted to light, and then fall down and wander around in a way that's sort of reminiscent of zombies in the movies," Hafernik told ABC News. "Sometimes we've taken to calling [it], when they leave their hives, 'the flight of the living dead.'"

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These aren't undead bees doomed to roam for eternity. They often die only a few hours after showing symptoms, Hafernik said.

Hafernik and his team of colleagues and students have been tracking the zombie bee spread across the United States. California, Washington, Oregon and South Dakota all have confirmed zombie bees while this is the first time the bee has been found this far east, said Hafernik. The fly previously attached to bumblebees as hosts, not honeybees, according to Hafernik.

"Right now, we don't know if it's an isolated thing," Stephen Parise, Vermont agricultural production specialist, said Tuesday at the state's annual farm show.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture hopes to use trapping to investigate the threat. Parise also told the Vermont Beekeeper Association that he expected more bee deaths this year due to wild temperature swings.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, a top bee expert, agreed.

"It is seemingly kind of Biblical here," she said. "We're getting every conceivable kind of plague."

Leif Richardson, a doctoral student at Dartmouth College studies the interactions between plants, pollinators and parasites. Richardson said the fly involved in zombie bees could, besides using honeybees as hosts, potentially transmit viruses and pathogens.

Beekeepers "should definitely be concerned about it," Richardson said.

Hafernik said it would be a "game changer" if these flies could hatch from dead bees and complete their life cycle inside the hive, something that most worries Cantrell.

"I think it would be another nail in the coffin for honeybees in the northern hemisphere," Cantrell said.

___

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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