Sarah Wallbank

Sarah Wallbank

Nanaimo beekeepers on the watch for ‘zombie’ bees

NANAIMO – Researchers confirm a parasite that infects and kills honeybees was found in Canada by Lantzville keeper.

Beekeepers are being encouraged to watch for ‘zombie bees’ after the first confirmed parasite-infected honeybees in Canada were found in Lantzville.

Researchers at San Francisco State University confirmed a parasite that infects and kills honeybees – after first causing disoriented, zombie-like behaviour – was found in Canada by local beekeeper Sarah Wallbank.

It might sound like a scene out of a Hollywood movie, but the parasite and its attack on honeybees is a phenomena tracked by John Hafernik, professor of biology at San Francisco State University and ZomBee Watch, a project that has citizen scientists collect samples of the parasite to see how widespread it is in North America. This is the northern-most example of the fly parasite, he said.

The fly is native to North America, but Hafernik said it’s normally found in bumblebees and yellow jacket wasps. He suggests the attack on honeybees is relatively new.

The fly deposits eggs into the abdomen of the bee, which hatch and feed and shortly after the bee will leave its hive, fly toward the light, acting disoriented and zombie-like.

It’s not something local beekeepers have heard before, but B.C.’s head apiarist, Paul van Westendorp, advises them not to be concerned.

“Really quite frankly I will advise [beekeepers], tell them straight out don’t be concerned as long as you make sure that you have healthy colonies, strong colonies, colonies that are looked after,” Westendorp said. “I don’t believe that there is going to be any serious threat concerning phorid flies that may parasitize a few bees. It’s totally inconsequential.”

Wallbank, a Lantzville resident, started to notice the behaviour of her bees four to six weeks after getting her hive. Bees were attacking her porch light.

“When you think about a moth flying around a light, the mother is paying attention to the light and fluttering around it,” she said. “Bees that are affected, they smash themselves into the light. They just hit it. It’s like linesmen in football, like bang, bang, bang – over and over again.”

They don’t move like they have control of their limbs properly, it’s slow and painful to watch, she said.

Research led her to believe she might be looking at the parasite, and the ZomBee Watch website showed her how she could collect samples with a light trap. A phorid fly expert at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County confirmed her bees had been infected by the parasite behind zombee infestations, a university press release shows.

Wallbank doesn’t know why she has the zombie bees, and said she feels the tragedy of the situation.

“It’s a really bad way to go in my opinion,” she said.

She hopes to encourage other local beekeepers to set up light traps and take samples to see how far spread the parasites are.

Hafernik also hopes people are observant, especially beekeepers on what’s happening with the bee to help understand the distribution of the phenomenon.

“They should be observant and try and see what’s happening with their beehives and see if there’s any evidence that they are infected,” he said, although he doesn’t believe beekeepers should panic.

It’s one of the many things honeybees are dealing with, he said, and the best thing beekeepers can do is keep their hives as healthy as possible, which would also keep bees resilient to things like flies and mites.

Westendorp, provincial apiculturist, also doesn’t see the need for concern. On a scale of 0 to 10, there are diseases and tests bees deal with like varroa mites, that are at a 10. The phorid fly is at a 1 or 2.

If the fly gets hold of a bee and successfully parasitizes it, it will lead to the death of the individual bee, but he said in the bee world it’s not the individual bees they talk about but the integrity of the honey bee colony.

“Yes, from an academic perspective it’s interesting we have these little phorid flies out,” he said. “I would be alerted that if indeed this beekeeper is having this infestation and the phorid flies are that successful in parasitizing her bees, I have the suspicion or the concern that her colonies may be weak for other reasons and that’s what enables the phorid fly infestation to be successful.

“The larger picture of the phorid fly I don’t think is a problem.”

Stan Reist, co-owner of the Flying Dutchman, has been dealing with the virreau mite, which causes the greatest amount of grief. They are not aware of zombie bees.

“It might be something that happens and there’s not enough of it to twig onto it, but it’s just something else I’m going to have to watch for,” he said, adding he’s not concerned.

Peter Lange, president of Nanaimo Beekeepers Club, said they are in the process of gathering more information but do know the size of the problem is unknown, and that the fly isn’t dangerous to humans.

The club will monitor it, he said, and send information out to educate beekeepers, invite them to watch out for it and report it.

Just Posted

Janice Coady, left, Aimee Chalifoux and Linda Milford at a vigil for Amy Watts on Wednesday, June 16, outside Nanaimo city hall. (Greg Sakaki/News Bulletin)
‘We need to do better,’ says mother of woman who was killed in Nanaimo

Vigil held for former outreach worker Amy Watts, whose body was found downtown June 3

The B.C. Ministry of Education has announced close to $44 million for the province’s schools for COVID-19 recovery. (News Bulletin file)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith school stakeholders say COVID-19 recovery funding can make a difference

B.C. Ministry of Education announces it expects a ‘near-normal’ return to class in September

Nanaimo artist Melissa Anderson has paintings on display at White Rabbit Coffee Co. for the next month. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)
Nanaimo painter showcases coastal Island views in first exhibit in two years

Melissa Anderson presents ‘Seascapes’ oil painting exhibit at White Rabbit Coffee Co.

New COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island by local health area for the week of June 6-12. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control image)
New COVID-19 cases up on Island, but health officials say trends going right way

There were 22 new COVID-19 cases in Greater Victoria last week after just four the week before

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van exploded while refueling just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada: UVic professor

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

Most Read