FREDERIC, Wis., February 20, 2013 — Last year alarms sounded around the world when a university study reported a “deadly fly parasite” could threaten the honey bees, making them act “zombie-like” and saying it was “consistent” with the deadly Colony Collapse Disorder.
The Associated Press, and other news agencies quickly broadcast the questioned discovery without checking reliable sources beyond those who produced the study.
Experts say the scare is, and remains, media hype.
“I think this fly is rare and not a true threat to bees,” said Jeffrey Pettis, research leader at the USDA. “It makes great headlines, however.”
In January 2012, John Hafernik, professor of evolutionary and ecological processes at San Francisco State University, published a study declaring “widespread” attacks on the bees by the tiny parasite fly, Apocephalus borealis.
“It could threaten honey bee colonies throughout North America…and into regions of the world.”
The three-year study hailed the attack on bees as “evolutionary.” Peer colleagues cautioned Dr. Hafernik not to link the parasite fly to CCD. Despite this warning, he stated it was a marker “consistent” with the syndrome.
Why should this entire buzz matter to 314 million Americans living outside the beehives? Because of your food and money.
Nearly one-third of U.S. agriculture depends on the 2.4 million bee colonies for big-crop production, where bees annually pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops, a Cornell University study estimates.
Is the Threat Overblown?
The federal government estimates there are 80,000 American beekeepers coast to coast. And the latest government figures (2011) estimate American beekeepers produced 150 million pounds of honey earning $256 million, said Marlys Christiason, a spokesperson for the National Honey Board.
In nation-wide watching, the government has yet to see or hear any credible reports of “zombie” behavior in bees.
“We’ve done a number of surveys across the country over the past six to eight years,” said Dr. Pettis. “We haven’t seen it in the survey work we’ve done.”
Credible experts say the hype does not warrant alarms. “We don’t see this issue as a threat,” said Dr. Pettis. “And linking it to CCD is probably a bit premature there.”
The parasite fly’s main victims are bumblebees—not honey bees. “They’ve been known to infest or parasitize bumblebees for some time all over the country,” said Dr. Eric Mussen, California State bee specialist and professor at the University of California, Davis in a previous interview. “It’s not new. I don’t believe it’s a terribly important thing to honeybees as a whole.”
The common, and terrible, thing the parasite fly does is parasitize bumblebees — and has for eons. The female fly attacks a host bee and injects (lay) her eggs into it. Larva then incubates and emerges, killing the host. (See video below)
But this phenomenon is phenomenally rare in honeybees, like someone being hit by lightening. It’s extremely unusual. “We’re not seeing anything unusual,” said Randy Oliver, editor of ScientificBeekeeping.com and a beekeeper for 45 years, who manages and researches 1,000 hives in California. “I certainly haven’t seen this.” He calls any panic “unwarranted.”
Zombees on the Loose?
But even the slim fact that a scant few parasite flies are behaving oddly is attention grabbing. “It might turn into something,” said Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine. “It’s not often a parasite switches hosts. But when it does, it can be devastating.”
And the script can be made scary, like bad horror movie. “It’s kind of the stuff science fiction movies are made of,” said Marion Ellis, Extension Apiculture Specialist at the University of Nebraska and spokesman for the American Bee Federation in a past interview.
Most attacks are happening on the West Coast, like many Hollywood movies. “So far, citizen scientists have found the flies infecting honeybees in a number of localities in Washington and Oregon as well as south of San Francisco,” said Dr. Hafernik. “No confirmed cases yet in honey bees from the East Coast.”
The latest academic paper springs from Oregon State University. “Currently I think it is not a threat,” said Ramesh Sagili, assistant professor of honeybees at OSU and author of a “zombie” fly study. “But we need to be very vigilant to make sure that it doesn’t become another problem to the already struggling bees.”
In his research, he has witnessed a single occurrence of the parasite fly bothering a honeybee. “Just the one bee, yes,” said Dr. Sagili. Last year Dr. Hafernik said he witnessed a “number of bees” being affected. No reports since.
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