Museum-quality zombies in Exposition Park

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It's the Halloween season, and the LAObserved costume department has the inside track on zombie wear: bees. Or, more accurately, teeny tiny little flies that invade the bodies of bees, making them behave like psychopaths before decapitating them.

If you want to look like a cutting-edge zombie, you've got to go entomological.

The L.A. County Natural History Museum enables Night of the Flying Soon-to-be Dead through its Citizen Science program. It's a long-term biodiversity study for which you, too, can enumerate the population of four- six- and eight-legged creatures. The point of the research is to understand all of our SoCal neighbors, not just the ones who play their music too loud and walk the dog when we're running late.

Museum geeks and their academic conspirators host occasional cocktail parties to bring people up to date with research they've helped compile. LAObserved attended one such gathering this week of 61 fellow bee peepers in the North American Mammal Hall, surrounded by diorama-ed badgers ("Fairly common in appropriate habitats" -- they live in Banning!), raccoons ("prefer moist woodlands," but clearly not the one snurfling around my Santa Monica driveway), lions and tigers and bears, oh my.

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We munched cheese and crudités, sipped tequila ZomBritas and learned how weaponized flies the size of coarsely ground black pepper parasitize bees for procreative pleasure.

Lila Higgins, the museum's manager of Citizen Science, kicked off the program with the invitation that "you, too, can become a real-life zombie hunter," and introduced Dr. John Hafernik. Professor of biology at San Francisco State and director of the museum's ZomBee Watch program, Hafernik is like many ologists. His love of bugs dates to childhood, when his mother, tired of him foraging around the neighborhood, told him, "Don't get dirty," and handed him a bug book.

"I still have it," he said. He still gets dirty.

Hafernik PowerPointed his way through the Halloweenesque tale of how zombie flies have populated several continents, including ours. Zombies are members of the phorid family, which includes the parasitic species known as "ant-decapitating flies," which are welcome neighbors if you are infested with fire ants.

Zombie flies live in Hafernik's Bay Area 'hood, but only one has been found in L.A. It had infected a bumblebee in Rancho Palos Verdes. Zombie flies infect other bee species, as well as wasps.

Most attention, zombie-wise, has been paid to the honeybee. Hafernik ascribed his first encounter with the neurologically disturbed insects to being a "cheapskate." To avoid parking fees, he would arrive at school earlier than students in order to snag a parking spot on the street next to the biology building, where one day he noticed some honeybees "walking weird," and several dead ones littering the sidewalk.

Hafernik was only too happy to collect some bee takeout for the department's praying mantis. "Like most of you," he said, "I walk around carrying a vial."

He left the vial containing the bees on the black hole that is his desk, and recovered it a week later only to find it full of fly pupae. "Eureka," he had found it; until then, no honeybees had been found to be infected.

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Honeybees, left; zombie flies, right

He sent a sample to Brian Brown, curator and head of the NHM's entomology department, and North America's foremost expert on phorid flies. Brown ID'd the murderous specks, and it wasn't long before other reports of odd honeybee behavior were confirmed as the result of zombie fly parasites.

Four thousand bee species are native to North America, and 1,600 of them live in California; 300 to 400 call L.A. home. Honeybees are critical members of the agricultural industrial complex, responsible for pollinating about one-third of the food you eat. Their numbers have declined precipitously in recent years from colony collapse disorder (CCD), and the loss of honeybee colonies has quadrupled the cost California almond farmers pay to rent the hives they need to pollinate their trees.

The causes of CCD are not clear. Aerosol use appears to be a factor, and maybe zombie flies are, too. Scientists have to know more before remedies can be developed.

"How many people watch the CSI shows?" Hafernik asked. "You can admit it," he said, because it's all about the science. Phorids are known as "coffin flies" because they're found in human cadavers.

Zombie flies turn bees into bee cadavers by finding the soft tissue in the banded part of the abdomen and depositing their eggs with a hypodermic-like appendage called an ovipositor. When the eggs hatch into larvae (aka maggots), they munch their way up to the bee's head, eventually separating head from abdomen. That releases the maggots, Hafernik explained with gruesomely delicious visual aids, which pupate, become adult flies and live for another six weeks to drive bees crazy all over again.

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"There are maybe 6,000 species of mammals," Hafernik lectured mere feet from the diorama to his left featuring walruses the size of Nebraska (whose baculum, or penis bone, according the NHM, " may be up to 24 inches long") "and we know all of them. But we're still finding phorid flies ... we'll probably get to 8,000."

We need to know more about the zombies because of their potential global reach and economic influence -- 40% of honeybees are infected. If humans had an infectious virus equivalent to the effect of zombie flies on bees, "It would be the largest epidemic of all time," Hafernik said, cautioning listeners that although he's not an epidemiologist, he understands the need to know more about the zombies. It's not like you can quarantine them for 21 days at JFK.

If you want to hunt zombies without risking your brain integrity, check out the NHM's Citizen Science ZomBee Watch. You'll find instructions on how to attract bees, take photos, collect samples and upload information to the site.

Not to mention Halloween fashion tips.
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Photos: Ellen Alperstein, Natural History Museum

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