Can’t See the Phorids for the Bees

The state apiarist is coming to visit us! Yes, we have one and he’ll be stopping by at some point to do an inspection.

I’d love it if the reason for his visit is that we are such kick-@$$ beekeepers.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

What the case actually is: our humble hive may represent the first documented case of Apocephalus borealis infestation of honeybees in the state of North Carolina.

A. borealis is a perennial parasite of bumblebees, paper wasps, and a few other species; it’s only recently that they’ve decided that apis mellifera (honeybees) make a mighty tasty meal as well. And so they’ve jumped hosts.

As far as anyone knows, A. borealis does not present a significant threat to colonies — I mean, it certainly doesn’t help an already declining honeybee population, but it doesn’t necessarily spell automatic disaster. It’s just another damn thing that the poor, beleaguered bees have to deal with — you know, as if mites, moths, beetles, diseases, pesticides, CCD, habitat loss, etc., etc. weren’t enough.

From an entomologist’s point of view, this is very interesting and exciting.

From a beekeeper’s point of view, this is very interesting but also kind of depressing.

Here’s the story: at point in time during the July 4 holiday weekend, I noticed some dead bees on the porch. I gathered them up and put them in an empty salsa jar, partly because I didn’t want dead bees scattered all over the porch but also because I didn’t want to expose the surviving bees to anything potentially awful.

A couple days later, it happened again. And again, I gathered them up and put them in a different empty jar.

One morning, a few days later, I took the dog outside for her morning walk and happened to notice some bees clinging to the porch light, just kind of hanging out. I poked at one, it fell to the ground, and then couldn’t seem to right itself or fly away or, really, do much of anything except sit there. We collected those, too; they were NOT pleased.

A quick inspection of the hive combined with some equally quick Googling gave us a working hypothesis, but there wasn’t much we could do aside from a bit of slapdash citizen science: collecting dead and dying bees in jars over a period of a week or so and then waiting for something to happen. Eventually, it did. Within two weeks, small grub-like larvae had begun to emerge from the desiccated bee corpses…

"apocephalus borealis larva"

…and pupated.

"apocephalis borealis pupae"

And there you have it: PARASITES!

It’s like discovering a new, fatal disease: all you can really say is, “Hey, we found this thing, we don’t know how to stop it or anything, all we know is that it will f*ck your $#!+ up! (*jazz hands*)”

In this instance, our collection jars yielded approximately one larva per ~dozen(ish) dead bees. At least one appears to have died in its larval stage, two have pupated, and — as of this post — no mature flies have emerged.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had we left any bees in situ. However, it would seem that this particular infestation is not an especially severe one — although the fact that we collected the dead and dying bees shortly after they fell may have mitigated the problem somewhat by disrupting the breeding cycle.*

Still, I hesitate to even talk about it, because this is the kind of discovery that no one will ever thank you for. On the other hand, SCIENCE!

 

*Which isn’t to say that we’re in the clear. When it comes to bees, any issue tends to be a tip-of-the-iceberg situation; no hive ever suffers from just ONE thing, there’s almost always some secondary or tertiary problem lurking beneath the surface. So at this point, I’m less concerned about these particular not-very-successful parasitic flies and more concerned about what else may have weakened the bees to the point where they were susceptible to infestation.
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