Across multiple news networks last week, stories emerged of a new and frightening spectre haunting the United States. Hovering between the world of the living and the realm of the dead; mindless and devoid of individuality, but driven by a malign collective will bent upon aggressive expansion and the invasion of new territories: the ‘zombie bee’. Combining reanimated cannibal corpse and swarming killer bee, a more striking instance of an entity conjured up for the cultural imagination as an anxiety-inducing hybrid is difficult to imagine.
The reality is not quite so dramatic, though gruesome enough and certainly an issue of concern for beekeepers, entomologists and ecologists. First discovered in 2008, so-called ‘zombie bees’ are bees that have been infected by the eggs of the fly Apocephalus Borealis. The eggs grow inside the bee and are believed to damage its neurological system, which typically results in erratic, jerky movements, especially at night; hence the tenuous ‘zombie’ association. Rather than undead, these are actually brain-damaged bees which die within a few hours of exhibiting the ‘zombie-like’ symptoms (and incidentally, they do not then reanimate). The fly has previously attached mostly to bumble bees rather than honey bees, and the news stories were triggered by the first reports of honey bees infected with Apocephalus Borealis having reached the North-East of America.
This adds another affliction to the long and growing list of pressures on bees, and honey bees in particular, from parasites and viruses to pesticides, disappearing forage, and the stresses of intensive commercial beekeeping involving long-distance migratory pollination. As such, the emergence and spread of Apocephalus Borealis provides further evidence of the escalating crisis of honey bee ecology and the unsustainability of current forms of commercial apiculture, with dire implications for the world food system. But why has this been packaged in this instance as a story of ‘zombie bees’? No doubt in part simply because it makes for dramatic headlines, but one can also detect a deeper cultural logic at work. Zombie bees are just the latest in a series of apian spectres conjured for public consumption, such as in stories of swarming killer bees or aggressive ‘Africanized’ bees invading from the South. In each case a bio-ecological problem is transformed into something far more potent in the cultural imagination, such that bees become a locus for more general anxieties around invasion, contamination and transgression – whether of borders, bodies or boundaries.
In this way, discourse about bees has sometimes given voice to underlying essentialist and xenophobic structures of feeling, mixing modern bio-phobia or fear of nature with a fear of mixture itself, a terror of hybrids and foreign Others – whether human or nonhuman – which seem to bring with them an undoing of fixed identities and established boundaries. It would be simplistic to maintain that such discourse is explicitly racist, but certainly racialised undercurrents are never far away in these stories of non-native or hybridised bees invading and encroaching upon this or that home territory. Sometimes the threatening Others tacitly signified are political rather than racial, as in the common Cold War figuring of bees as both evil collective and collectivist evil, a pseudo-communist swarm.
The zombie incarnation is especially interesting because zombies are so closely linked to very modern anxieties about mass society – both the perceived potential for ‘brain-washing’ and loss of individuality associated with mass culture and urban anonymity, and also the ever-present threat of disorder, social breakdown and collapse. Nor is the connection between bees and the undead entirely novel, as bees were often regarded in folklore as liminal creatures hovering between life and death, with swarming bees believed to carry the souls of the dead as they left the body. Bees have also long been seen – not without some justification – as barometers of the overall health of eco-systems. The phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder, which has seen a rapid decline of honey bees worldwide since 2007, has at times been cast almost as a story of approaching ‘end times’, in which disappearing bees become a focal point for deepening existential anxieties around the mounting risks to human, animal and ecological health associated with globalised industrial capitalism.
So the stories of ‘zombie bees’ reveal a great deal not just about the unfolding crisis of honey bees but about the recurring social and cultural anxieties that pervade late modern capitalist societies. In this respect, zombie bees are hybrids in a double-sense, not just in mixing together the cultural symbolism of the zombie and the bee, but in mixing together shared elements of previously separate sorts of anxieties: on the one hand about transgression of boundaries regarded as natural or essential; and on the other hand about the ecological consequences of modern society. Though they share a common sense that something is fundamentally out of kilter with the modern world, the political anatomy of these anxieties could not be more different and should not be conflated. Some hybrids are indeed malign.
© Richie Nimmo 2014.