COLLINSVILLE, VA -- The soft buzz of 60,000 honey bees is music to Lynn Berry's ears.
"My wife and my mother-in-law decided that it'd be a good idea to get bees and they decided that I was the man for the job," said Berry.
For the past 14 months, the Collinsville, Virginia man has been raising these insects as a hobby. "They're foraging all day long, they're flying out, they're looking for nectar, they're looking for pollen,” said Berry.
Everything was going as planned until a couple weeks ago. "We started noticing that there was a build-up of bees sometimes in the mornings."
Dead bees under the dusk-to-dawn light on his garage. It kept getting worse. As many as 20, 30, even 40 bees at a time.
"You love to go in there and look at them and yes you do think of them as your own, you are concerned and you hate to kill any of them," said Berry.
He started researching what could be killing them and came across a startling find. A parasite that turned honey bees into zombie bees. "Zombie bees, as they are known, tend to go to lights at night,” said Berry. “Normally bees won't fly out at night, it's dark, they navigate by the sun and the lights so they're not going to fly out at night, generally."
The process starts when a parasitic fly attaches itself to a honey bee and injects its eggs into the bee, causing "zombie-like" behavior.
"They kind of lose their navigational abilities, they walk around in circles kind of disoriented and then they eventually die because they're being eaten from the inside," said Berry.
Fly larvae burst out of their carcasses days after they die. So Berry put several of the dead bees in containers to watch them. After maggots emerged days later, he contacted scientists who confirmed that Berry had discovered Virginia's first case. "This was the furthest south that they had found this."
"It's not shocking, it's not surprising, it is a big worrisome," said Robert Jacobs of the Guilford County Beekeepers Association. He’s aware of the danger of zombie bees.
"You keep piling one more thing upon one more thing upon one more thing with the honey bees and the bees have trouble," said Jacobs.
Honey bees are known to provide a third of our food. They already fall prey to mites, viruses and colony collapse. Jacobs believes zombie bees are spreading from California where more than half of the managed beehives in the country travel for the almond pollination.
“Whatever is out there somewhere is going to find its way back here,” warned Jacobs. “It's just something we have to deal with."
And now that the zombie parasite is here, bee hobbyists like Lynn Berry are left wondering what's next? "What are we going to do long-term? We don't know what the long-term impact is going to be."
"It's something to keep an eye on and if it becomes more of a problem then hopefully we'll figure some way to deal with it," added Jacobs.
Zombie bees had previously been found in seven states. Virginia makes eight. It's the first state in the South with a confirmed case.