Cougar Ridge students study zombees to hunt honeybee killer
October 30, 2012
By Lillian O'Rorke
Forget the trick-or-treating witches and ghouls — real zombees are out there and fifth-graders at Cougar Ridge Elementary School are hunting them.
No, it’s not the start of an R. L. Stine novel, it’s a science project. And its subject is not the brain-eating undead, but rather honey bees that have been infected by the parasite apocephalus borealis. The infected bees are more commonly known as zombie bees or “zombees” because of the disoriented, zombie-like way the altered insects act.
For the past month, students in Sharon Roy’s fifth-grade class have been studying the phenomenon by collecting, monitoring and tracking results from honeybees suspected of having fallen prey to the parasite. Eventually, the students’ work will be contributed to ZomBee Watch, a citizen science project that is headed by San Francisco State University biologist John Hafernik, who discovered the first infected honeybee in 2008.
“It is pretty awesome, doing real scientific work that doesn’t come out of a kit,” said Jacob Lessing, a student in Roy’s class.
Jacob’s father, Yoel Lessing, is a beekeeper who approached his son’s teacher with the idea for the project after the first zombee case was confirmed in Washington in late September.
Cougar Ridge Elementary School
On the Web
Learn more about the bees and project at www.zombeewatch.org.
“Instead of going through planned exercises and everyone knows the results ahead of time, the kids are participating in a science project that no one knows the results of,” Yoel Lessing said. “Right now, they are in the data collection phase … but once the results are collected, and they have a sense of who is and who is not affected, they will be able to come up with hypotheses about why they are seeing what they are seeing.”
The parasitic zombie fly, which usually attacks wasps and bumblebees, is now being found to lay its eggs in honeybees. The fly larvae, or maggots, then eat the insides of the bee, leading the bee to leave its hive at night, which normal honeybees don’t do, and stagger around. The zombees have often been seen near lights, stumbling around aimlessly in circles before dying. Eventually, the maggots abandon their dead host and form pupae (much like a butterfly’s cocoon) before emerging as an adult zombie fly.
To gather the bees, the class constructed light traps out of flowerpots, metal light fixtures, duct tape and light bulbs, and distributed them to 10 area beekeepers. Along with the light traps, the beekeepers were also given storage containers and instructions for capturing suspicious bees.
Before receiving a trap, one of the beekeepers, Larry Golden, found a bee outside of its hive, bumping into his workshop window. By the time he brought the bee in for the class to examine, little brown, pill-shaped pupae lay scattered around the dead bee. Students crowded over their neighbor’s shoulders, too excited to wait their turn to look at the state’s second confirmed zombee.
“It was interesting because I got the see what it looks like,” said Derek Dang. The fifth-grader added that the nearly red pupae were “weird looking.”
That day, the students also passed around another sample. This honeybee had been collected with their light trap at Yoel Lessing’s hive on Mercer Island. The whole process of maggots emerging and forming pupae takes a couple of weeks, so the class has not yet determined if this bee was infected.
“The kids are doing an important part … they are watching them daily,” Yoel Lessing said. “If this is the cause of colony collapse disorder (the mysterious phenomenon in which honeybees abruptly disappear) then this is tremendous progress … There is something else that is part of the equation that no one has determined.”
The students continue to observe several other samples of bees, which left local hives at night, for further evidence of the zombie fly.
“They’ve been really interested … We’ve talked a lot about it,” said Roy, who has tied the project in with another lesson where the students pollinate plants with separate freeze-dried bees. “They will be able to see how that relates, too, to connect with what we are doing.”
It is still unknown if there is a connection between zombees and colony collapse disorder, or how widespread the occurrence of zombie flies attacking honeybees is. But that’s the point of ZomBee Watch — to find answers. The potential importance of the project has not escaped the fifth-graders.
“If all the bees become zombie bees than it will be hard to harvest crops, and things will be more expensive,” said Patrizio Fichera, a Cougar Ridge zombee hunter.