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Zombie bee discovered in Kent

A parasitic fly is seen infecting a honeybee, creating what researchers are calling a "zombie" bee. (Image courtesy Professor John Hafernik, SFSU)

It’s a lot like the movie Alien, but some real-life zombie bees have been discovered in our state.

“We call it the flight of the living dead,” says San Francisco State biology professor John Hafernik, who first discovered and named the zombie bees on the SFSU campus.

According to Hafernik, infected flies land on honeybees and inject eggs into their adbomens. As the eggs begin developing, the bees start acting erratically, leaving the hive at night and congregating near lights, flying aimlessly until they die.

“They basically hatch and eat the insides out of the bee,” Hafernik explains.

Kent beekeeper Mark Hohn is the first to discover infected bees in Washington. He found them after returning home from vacation, collecting the corpes and discovering they were infected when the parasitic flies emerged.

“I joke with my kids that the zombie apocalypse is starting at my house,” Hohn tells The Seattle Times.

It’s no laughing matter for biologists. Hafernik, who made the initial discovery in 2008, says it’s another threat to bee populations threatened by a mysterious ailment called colony collapse disorder.

“We need bees for healthy agriculture,” he says. “About one out of three things that we put on our dinner tables at night are there because a bee pollinated a plant,” he says.

Hafernik is relying on citizen scientists like Hohn to report sightings of zombie bees. So far they’ve been discovered in California, Oregon, South Dakota and, now, Washington.

>>>Track the spread of Zombie bees here

“I’ve been saying that we’re trying to find out if it’s a major actor in an important movie or whether it’s a bit player in a bee movie,” he says about efforts to determine how widespread the outbreak might be.

Once the parasitic flies inject their eggs, it takes about three to four weeks for them to pupate like a tiny butterfly and emerge from a zombie bee, then the cycle is repeated, Hafernik says.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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