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Zombie bees spotted for the first time in Canada on Vancouver Island

A Nanaimo beekeeper noticed some of her bees were acting strangely

A phorid fly lays its eggs in a honeybee, where its larvae will develop, attack the host’s brain, and eat its insides before emerging from the body.

San Francisco State University/Contributed

A phorid fly lays its eggs in a honeybee, where its larvae will develop, attack the host’s brain, and eat its insides before emerging from the body.

Zombie bees are a beekeeper’s worst nightmare and this summer they have been spotted for the first time in Canada in Nanaimo, B.C.

Sarah Wallbank had just started her honeybee hive in her backyard three months ago when she noticed a few bees acting strangely – they were buzzing around a nearby light after dark.

“They were quite frantic about the way they were flying into the light so I didn’t think that was normal.”

Wallbank built a light trap to collect the disoriented bees, which consisted of putting an LED lightbulb in a bucket and setting it down near the hive.

She collected 16 dead bees in one night. She put them in jars and sure enough, after a week, 42 maggots emerged from the bees’ dead bodies – Wallbank’s hive was infected with zombie bees.

The parasite responsible for putting the bees into a zombie-like state and eventually killing them is called the phorid fly.

It lays its eggs in bees and when the eggs hatch, larvae attack their host’s brains, causing the bees to act disoriented, according to John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University. Meanwhile, the larvae eat the bee’s insides for about a week until they are ready to emerge and turn into flies.

Phorid larvae emerge from their dead host, a honeybee.

San Francisco State University/Contributed

Phorid larvae emerge from their dead host, a honeybee.

The phorid fly traditionally targets bumblebees and various kinds of wasps but six years ago, Hafernik discovered the fly can lay its eggs in honeybees too.

Honeybees are already under threat in North America due to mites, viruses, fungal diseases, and pesticides, said Hafernik.

If too many worker bees are infected with this parasite, the whole hive can collapse, he said.

“The worry here is that a large number of workers in any one hive will get infected by the fly and if that happens, that could affect the health and survival of the hive itself.”

Hafernik started a citizen science project called ZomBee Watch four years ago where people are asked to send in photos or samples of zombie bees to the university.

The phenomenon had only been recorded in parts of the U.S. but thanks to Wallbank’s discovery in July, scientists now know the fly is attacking honeybees further north as well. 

“We think this is something that could be an issue for honeybees not only for B.C. but also in the eastern part of Canada,” said Hafernik.

Wallbank, owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Riso, hopes the parasite does not become widespread among honeybees because a lot of food comes directly from bee pollination.

“I have a vested interested in bee health and wellness.”

She says she plans to continue collecting samples of zombie bees in her backyard and disposing of them to ensure the flies cannot multiply in her backyard.

How does she dispose of them? She uses the tried-and-true method of flushing them down the toilet.

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