University Place resident Larry Golden lives near a cemetery and made a disturbing find as Halloween draws near: a zombie bee in UP.
Like many scary stories, it started with things that go bump in the night. The Microsoft manager noticed a bee thumping against the inside of his workshop’s window one night last month. He and his wife, Jennifer, captured it in a water bottle. The bee was dead the next morning.
Golden, 39, isn’t a mad scientist. He’s a novice beekeeper who discovered Washington state’s second confirmed case of a honey bee that was infected and died in a way best imagined in a horror movie.
“To me it’s all serious because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said this week. “I’d hate to lose a hive as a first-year beekeeper.”
His discovery, confirmed by scientists this week, could hold important implications for a state that relies on honey bees to pollinate crops and drive its agricultural engine. Much attention already has been paid to the plight of bees dying off due to Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome where worker bees abandon their hives.
Now a certain species of fly has inexplicably begun attacking honey bees. The fly will land on a bee’s abdomen and jab its with its needle-like appendage to deposit its eggs. The fly is known to attack bumblebees and paper wasps, but no one knows why it started infecting honey bees.
Once infected, the bee exhibits abnormal, zombie-like behavior, such as flying out of its hive at night and buzzing around lights before dropping dead from maggots eating its insides.
Golden said the zombie bee that he discovered on Sept. 24 likely came from his hive.
Golden, who lives near New Tacoma Cemetery, began keeping bees this summer after a friend offered him half of his hive. Golden likes trying new things and is fascinated by science.
So he agreed – though he’s allergic to bees.
“It came down to how much gear I can wear,” he said.
He’s been stung only once since he started, causing the left side of his body to swell and the left side of his face to go numb.
Golden had earlier learned about zombie bees from an online beekeepers’ forum. He sent a high-resolution video and photos of his specimen to Zombee Watch, a citizen science project started by Dr. John Hafernik, a biology professor at San Francisco State University.
The project is recruiting volunteers to determine where the fly is infecting honey bees and how often they leave their hives at night, even if not infected.
“We don’t know if this is something that is spreading or has been in place for a long time,” Hafernik said Friday.
Although the flies are found around the country, the only reports of them infecting honey bees have been on the West Coast so far, Hafernik said.
Kent beekeeper Mark Hohn discovered the first zombie bee in the state about a month ago. Golden received his confirmation from Zombee Watch on Monday night.
The group’s online map shows seven more suspected cases of zombie bees in Washington, and Hafernik believes most will be confirmed.
Hafernik said its unknown whether the bee’s erratic behavior stems from a sort of brain control “altruistic suicide” by the infected bee, or ejection of the bee by the hive.
Hafernik said there’s no “smoking gun” to suggest zombie bees cause hive collapse, although better understanding of why bees leave home at night will help researchers.
Franclyn Heinecke, vice president of the Pierce County Beekeepers Association, said Golden’s discovery has the group’s attention, but they’re waiting to learn more about various pests and predators.
“We’re all trying to figure out what’s happening to honey bees, so this is one more thing to look at,” she said.
She estimated there are about 2,000 beekeepers in Pierce County, most of whom maintain a small number of hives.
Golden, who’s a member of the association, said his zombie bee discovery has led him to learn as much as he can so he can educate others. He’s sent his specimen to Washington State University for further study. He made a presentation to a class at an elementary school in Issaquah and talked Friday to his son’s fifth-grade class at Drum Intermediate School.
“It’s a little thing I can do,” he said.