My zombie flies: pets I could do without
My plan was to split my largest hive before I left town for a week. Although my husband was willing to deal with a swarm if necessary, I decided it was better to save him the trouble.
Before I could begin, I had to prepare a place to put the split. I decided on my one dead-out, a hive where the colony had perished suddenly in March. It is embarrassing to say that the hive starved, but I’m sure that is what happened. I had been feeding all my colonies once every two weeks since the unseasonably warm weather arrived, but while that worked for my other hives, this one didn’t make it. It was fine on March 4, but by the time I opened it for the next feeding on March 16, there wasn’t a speck of food left and everyone was dead.
As soon as I found the colony dead, I closed up the hive so predators couldn’t get in. Otherwise, it sat there unattended until April 25 when I decided to clean it up and use it for the split.
I began scraping the tops of the frames in the highest of the three brood boxes. I saw some funny-looking cocoon-like things sprinkled around the bars, but I just scraped them into the grass. Something, though, bothered me about them. After a few minutes I stopped what I was doing and looked for more. They were easy to spot since there were so many. It occurred to me that they looked like the photos of zombie fly pupae I’d seen on the ZomBeeWatch.org website. I decided to collect some and take photos.
The most frustrating thing was trying to upload my findings to ZomBeeWatch. Their data collection software wasn’t set up for finding pupae in a dead hive on dead bees in winter not near a light source. Irritated, I sent an e-mail to the contact person and asked what to do.
In the meantime I finished cleaning the hive. The only place I found the fly pupae was near the dead cluster of bees in the top of the top brood box. I searched in the two lower boxes and I sifted through the debris on the bottom board, but found no more pupae.
A few hours later, I received an fascinating e-mail from John Hafernik of San Francisco State University. John is the person who first discovered that the parasite, Apocephalus borealis, had begun infecting honey bees. In his e-mail he said he had forwarded my photo onto Brian Brown at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He said that both he and Brian believed my sample looked like A. borealis pupae. He said that if that were true, it would be the very first evidence of the fly overwintering in a failed honey bee hive. He asked me to keep the pupae isolated and watch what happens. Nothing like being famous for all the wrong reasons.
I put everything in a mason jar and asked my husband to watch it while I was gone. Yeah, I know—instead of worrying about swarms, he now had to worry about parasitic flies instead.
During a conversation with John, he asked me to say hello to Ramesh Sagili, Assistant Professor of Horticulture, at the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab. This turned into an opportunity for me to see confirmed samples of A. borealis pupae as well as an adult fly—something that has been very helpful.
Now that I’m home again, I have mason jars lined up containing all manner of zombie flies. On Sunday May 5, I got my first adult fly, on Monday I got another, on Tuesday three more, and three so far today. I’m operating a regular zombie fly hatchery in my kitchen. Right next to dinner I have jars of dead bees, jars of pupae, jars containing flies of various ages, and jars of dead flies, too.
I still need to submit photos of my adult flies for the final confirmation of their identity. This is turning into a nightmare; I’ve taken dozens of photos where you can’t see much. I’m probably going to end up sending the dead flies to OSU and let them work it out.
Still, it’s been a fascinating ride. Yesterday I posted a question and answer page about zombees and zombie flies, and I urge everyone—especially beekeepers—to get involved with ZomBeeWatch.org and help gather information about this little-known threat to honey bee health. I signed up almost a year ago and never expected to see a zombie fly in my entire life. Now I’m raising them in my kitchen. You never now where those small acts will lead.