Back in 2010, Google proudly announced that it had installed four honeybee hives at its sprawling Googleplex campus in Mountain View, Calif. Decorated in the search giant's colors, the additions proved extremely popular with employees and have since produced several hundred pounds of honey each year. But as Google wrote on its blog, the project had an additional purpose:
"We're also hoping to raise awareness of impact of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) — a phenomenon in which worker bees abandon the hive for reasons that aren’t fully understood," organizers wrote. "This has has become a cause of global concern and in some parts of the world more than 50 percent of the hives have been found abandoned. This has grave implications for us all as bees are responsible for pollinating approximately 70 percent of the fruit and vegetables we eat. The loss of bees has serious consequences for plants, wildlife and human survival."
As any beekeeper can tell you, honeybee colonies are susceptible to a number of diseases — from the manageable varroa mites to the devastating American foulbrood. This past January, LiveScience published an article on yet another enemy of the honeybee: the parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis. In a nutshell, the larvae of this parasite infect bees and quickly start devouring their brains, causing them to "leave their hive and die after wandering about in a zombie-like stupor."
Unfortunately for Google, it appears that these infected bees are affecting hives in Mountain View.
"On August 13, Googler and ZomBee hunt participant Bart Locanthi noticed unusual behavior around the honey bee hives at the Google West Campus," John Hafernik, a biologist at San Francisco State University and trustee and president of the California Academy of Sciences, told Scientific American." Apparently, honey bees were being attracted to a glass door behind the hives at night as Googlers burned the midnight oil inside. When I checked the areas, there were a number of dead bees with A. borealis pupae near them and a few maggots slithering around as well. Thus, these hives are also infected."
One of the theories surrounding Apocephalus borealis is that the parasite somehow messes with the bees circadian rhythm, making them more active at night. Since the infection is relatively new to scientists (the parasite seems to have recently shifted from bumblebees to honeybees), there's very little known about its virulence in colonies or methods to control its spread.
"If parasitized bees are numerous or co-occur with other infections, a hive could reach a tipping point leading to its collapse," reads a January 2012 paper on the parasite. "The detection of A. borealis in bees from South Dakota and Bakersfield, CA underlines the danger that could threaten honey bee colonies throughout North America. Movement of commercial hives could quickly spread phorid infection, especially given the number of states that commercial hives cross and are deployed in."
For now, Google's beekeepers are keeping an eye on the number of infections and whether or not any of their colonies collapse. Other beekeepers interested in adding to knowledge of infections can assist through "ZomBee Watch," an online citizen science project tracking the spread of the disease.
Check out a video about Google's love of the honeybee below: