Al Browning and his wife Marion outside their Fleetwood home

When a zombee is not a zombie

Provinical expert takes the sting out of 'zombie bee' claims, here in Surrey and anywhere else.

If you’re watching out for zombies this Hallowe’en, don’t look to insects, a bee expert with the province says.

For the past four years, stories of so-called “zombie bees” have spread through the media, scaring the public and terrifying the scientific community that insists the claims are inaccurate, according to Paul van Westendorp, provincial apiculturist at the B.C. ministry of agriculture.

“It’s totally bunk,” van Westendorp said Thursday. “There’s nothing to it.”

The vast array of coverage of zombie bees has caused some angst among local residents, most recently an 87-year-old Fleetwood man.

Two weeks ago, Al Browning thought his motion-activated light at the back of his house was malfunctioning when he saw it flickering outside his bedroom window.

He went outside and saw a large black bee with white stripes buzzing the light.

Browning didn’t think much of it, and resolved to fix the light.

He checked the light in the morning, and it appeared to be working fine. He tried the light again about three days later, and it still appeared to be fully operational.

But when the cloak of darkness fell that night, the light once again began to flicker.

“I went out this time again, and I looked up and my God, there must have been about 100 bees, maybe even more, flying around the lights,” Browning said Thursday. “Bees don’t fly at night, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Some were on the screen of my door and some were on the deck.”

He had seen coverage of zombie bees being confirmed in Seattle and figured they may have made it this far north.

Several claim that bees become “zombies” after being infected by the maggot (larvae) of the scuttle fly. The maggot eats the bees from the inside out and the bees respond by frantically flying.

The condition was first discovered by San Francisco State University biologist John Hafernik in 2008.

The bees have since been found in South Dakota, Oregon and Seattle.

However, van Westendorp said what’s occurring is a natural process.

A fly “wouldn’t dare” plant its young in a healthy bee, van Westednorp said. When a bee is sick or dying, then the fly may use it as a host of convenience to incubate its offspring.

Van Westednorp adds that at this time of year, food is in short supply for bees and wasps. Many of them that are sick or dying of starvation don’t return to the nest at night because they don’t want to pollute the hive with their carcasses.

They don’t fly at night because they can’t see in the dark.

“When there is a light, they’re strongly attracted to it,” van Westendorp said, figuring that when Browning’s light went on, sick or dying bees flew to the light, buzzed around it for some time, and then some of them simply died.

Browning said he wouldn’t have given it a second thought until he read coverage about the so-called zombie bees.

He’s since left the light bulb unscrewed to deter them from coming back.

Whether that makes his neighbours’ homes more attractive to bees is yet to be known.

There have been no other reports of zombie bees in Surrey, and van Westendorp doesn’t expect any.

“If this is a new pest, then why is it, it has never been reported inside of a live colony?” van Westendorp said. “That is really the measure.”

Being a month away from Hallowe’en, van Westendorp said claims of undead bees caters to the public imagination.

“But scientifically, it’s just goofy.”

@diakiw