Get involved in citizen science… help the honeybees!

While researchers have been making progress in discovering causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), we still don’t have all the answers.

Some of you may remember awhile back when I wrote about a fly called Apocephalus borealis. This fly was discovered by San Francisco State University researchers to be parasitizing honeybees.

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we can even think about associating the fly with CCD, and the authors of the original paper are now looking to get the public involved to help answer a lot of these questions.

I had some quibbles with the paper because I think it’s a bit of a stretch to connect the parasite to colony collapse disorder. However, there are many hypothetical ways that this parasitoid could make disease problems worse. If the fly knocks out the immune system, parasitized bees could amplify pathogens more efficiently. The fly could also move pathogens between colonies.

A lot of follow-up research needs to be done, and I think a lot of really basic questions need to be answered before it’s justified to look in that direction. Questions such as:

  • How often do honeybees leave their hives at night? Is this something only sick bees do?
  • Where does this parasitoid occur in the United States, and how widespread is parasitism in honeybees? Are there different biotypes which target honeybees specifically, or are honeybees accidental hosts? Are there widespread correlations between fly activity and colony collapse?
  • Given the geographic range, how often are pathogens implicated in CCD associated with the fly? Can they reproduce in the fly? Can they be spread by the fly somehow? Can the fly make the bees more susceptible to infection?

We currently don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Heck… there’s a lot of things we don’t know about the basic biology of the parasitoid. Or the biology of honeybees. Despite my reservations over the CCD link, I think the original Core et. al paper that I previously wrote about was a good step in the right direction, and the researchers who did the original research are starting to answer these questions.

To answer these questions, the researchers need to find honeybees infected with the flies, which can be problematic. It takes a lot of money to send researchers all over the US, and even then the sample size would be very limited due to time constraints. This is why it’s such a good idea to involve the public in this type of work as a citizen science project. You can simply cover more ground and get data more easily.

fly laying eggs inside a honey bee
A Zombie Fly laying eggs inside a Honey Bee. Image from ZomBee watch.

I really encourage anybody reading Biofortified to get involved in this research. This is a wonderful project. They have set up a website that offers some very detailed instructions on how to collect honeybees and parasitoid flies, including a tutorial on How to Become a ZomBee Hunter. Plus, who doesn’t love some zombie related science?

It won’t take much time out of your day… if you’ve got a porch light and a film canister or baby food jar, that’s all the equipment you need. Just look for honeybees that come to the light at night, save them, and send them to the researchers.

There’s a lot of good information on the website. The researchers pointed a few things out in their FAQ that I’d like to reiterate…

CCD probably is caused by multiple contributing factors including pathogens, parasites and pesticides. Honey bees parasitized by Apocephalus borealis abandon their hive, a behavior associated with CCD. One of our goals is to determine how big a role, if any, the fly plays in hive losses in various parts of North America…

…So far, Apocephalus borealis has not been proven to cause hive failures. Being infected with the fly is clearly not a good thing for honey bees, but at this point we don’t know how large an effect the fly has on hive health.

Happy hunting!

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Joe Ballenger is an entomologist who works in the biotech industry as a contractor. In his spare time, he helps answer questions about bugs at Ask an Entomologist. https://askentomologists.wordpress.com/