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NHM entomologist co-authors new research on parasitic phorid fly, a new threat to honey bees

Jan. 2, 2012 A paper to be published on January 3, 2012 in the authoritative magazine PLoS ONE, co-authored by NHM entomologist Dr. Brian Brown, reveals a new threat to honey bees and perhaps, a partial explanation for the bees' well-publicized Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a syndrome characterized by worker bees abandoning their hive. The threat is the tiny but dangerous phorid fly, which may pose an emerging threat to North American beekeeping.

The honey bee Apis mellifera has experienced recent unexplained die-offs around the world. Although catastrophic losses of honey bee colonies have occurred in the past, the magnitude and speed of recent hive losses appear unprecedented. So far, the main causal suspects have been parasitic mites, fungal parasites, viral diseases and interactions amongst them.

In this paper, the authors provide the first documentation that the phorid fly Apocephalus borealis, previously known to only parasitize bumble bees, also infects and eventually kills honey bees by leading them to abandon their hives at night.

Brown is a world authority on phorid flies, and blogs about the weird creatures at He has received reports of nighttime bee activity in Los Angeles. "It seems to be concentrated near the coast," he said, "which is where our collecting has also encountered the flies."

The authors prove that parasitized honey bees show hive abandonment behavior, leaving their hives at night and dying shortly thereafter. On average, seven days later, up to 13 phorid larvae emerge from each dead bee and pupate away from the bee. Using DNA barcoding, the authors confirmed that phorids that emerged from honey bees and bumble bees were the same species.

Understanding details of phorid infection may shed light on similar hive abandonment behaviors seen in CCD. Further, knowledge of this parasite could help prevent its spread into regions of the world where nave hosts may be easily susceptible to attack.

Contact: Kristin Friedrich
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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