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'Zombie bees' found in Washington state

SEATTLE -- Washington has its first case of "Zombie bees," but experts say the insects aren't as dangerous as their name would suggest.

Amateur beekeeper Mark Hohn first noticed the dead bees in front of his shop after returning from vacation in early September.

"When I first saw it, I just assumed it was natural," he said. "I found them right in the flight path of my hives."

Because Hohn keeps nearly 300,000 bees and only a couple dozen had died, he didn't think anything unusual was going. But then he saw bees acting strange, as if they were drunk. He shot some video of the bees, bagged some of the dead ones and contacted the experts.

Soon, biologists at Washington State University and San Francisco State University found out that he had the first recorded case of Zombie bees in Washington. The bees aren't a threat to humans, but they do pose a threat to the honey bee population, which has already been hit hard by various environmental factors and other sicknesses.

"I was distressed when I found out because I'm not sure how many bees I've lost, but I think I've lost a lot," Hohn said.

The zombie bees, which are actually honey bees infected with a parasite, were given their colorful nickname because of the way they act.

"They can't fly," Hohn said. "They flip over, they bounce off things and fly into lights like a moth".

Normal bees spend the night in hive, but "Zombees" often leave the hive at night and fly disoriented into bright lights like a moth.Most of the dead bees Mark Hohn has found were under an outdoor light that was left on all night.

The tiny parasitic flies that have infected the bees are nothing new. Biologists say they've been infecting yellow jackets and bumblebees for more than 100 years, but they say attacking honey bees is a new phenomenon.

"They have a structure like a hypodermic needle they can insert eggs into the bee, and those hatch into maggots inside of the bee," said Dr. John Hafernick, a biologist at San Francisco State University.

Hafernick discovered the new honey bee infection and is tracking its progress across North America on the website Zombeewatch.org.

"We've been calling it the flight of the living dead," Hafernick said. "These are bees that aren't coming back."

Despite their scary name, Hafernick said humans don't have to worry about an attack of zombie bees. "

You don't have to worry them attacking you as Africanized bees like that might do," he said. "They are not a threat to humans in that way, nor are the flies a threat to humans." So if you find dead bees below a porch light in the morning, there's a good chance those bees have been infected.

You can help in tracking the spread of Zombee's by putting the dead in a zip lock baggy. If after a week, tiny reddish pupa the size of very, very small rice are in the bag, then most likely the bee was infected by the parasitic fly.

If that happens, Zombeewatch.org would like you to upload close-up pictures of your findings. Hafernick said this is not an epidemic for honey bees, but he's concerned that the parasitic flies have somehow figured out they can infect honey bees.

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