Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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Contact: Nan Broadbent
San Francisco State University

Join the hunt for ZomBees

ZombeeWatch.org needs volunteers to identify parasitized honey bees

Honeybees usually like to stay in their hives at night, but lately scientists have been finding some strange honeybees that fly after dark. You might see them under a light, stumbling around in wobbly circles. Or you might find a pile of dead bees underneath those same lights in the morning.

A team of California scientists calls these insects ZomBees, and they need your help in finding them.

ZomBees are honeybees infected by a tiny fly that burrows inside them. Infected honey bees act strangely, sort of like the shuffling, zoned-out zombies of the movies. But once the bees are dead, they don't come back to life.

The infection has John Hafernik, a San Francisco State University biologist, worried about what will happen to honeybees all over the world. Could this fly infection kill off thousands of bees? Is it already making bees sick in different parts of the United States?

Hafernik and his fellow scientists started a website called ZomBeeWatch.org to get to the bottom of the bee problem. Anyone who wants to join Hafernik as a ZomBee hunter can sign up on the website and report any ZomBees they see. So far, nearly 100,000 people have visited the website, but Hafernik wants even more people to participate.

Think you have what it takes to be a ZomBee hunter? You have to have sharp eyes, and be patient, Hafernik said.

If you see a bee that is moving around strangely, or a dead bee underneath a light, you can collect it for the ZomBee hunt. Hafernik asks all hunters to collect the bees in a jar or a clear plastic envelope. Be careful, though—a weak or dying bee can still sting you!

If you have found a ZomBee, you will see something pretty gruesome in about a week. Maggots will burst out of the dead bee's neck, and crawl around the container and then form pupae that will eventually produce adult flies. You can take a pictures of your bees and any pupae and flies that emerge and send them to the ZomBee scientists through the website. They can tell you whether your bees were infected by the kind of fly that makes ZomBees.

Hafernik and his fellow scientists want to hear from you, even if you didn't see anything burst out of your bee. That information helps them map all the places where ZomBees haven't been found.

Most ZomBees are infected in late summer and early fall, so now is the perfect time to sign up at ZomBeeWatch.org, and join the hunt.