What’s buzzing around inside your head?

Last month, I told you about another ridiculous government medical disaster exercise.  No, not Obamacare—but Homeland Security and CDC training for government doctors and others involving a supposed “zombie apocalypse.”

The real apocalypse will likely be brought about by the government itself—and the zombies who work for it. But what about zombie bees? They are real. And may be telling us something critically important…

These bees don’t actually rise from the dead but demonstrate the disturbing zombie-like activity of bizarre, erratic, and aggressive behaviors (such as flying around at night). And then they abruptly die. This crazy and rapidly fatal course is due to a parasite.

A parasitic fly lays eggs inside honeybees. The larvae hatch and eat the bee from inside out, and the new flies emerge during the stricken bee’s “night flight of the living dead.”

At which point the flight of the bumblebee comes to an abrupt and permanent end. For the flies, however, it is like escaping the shell of the rocket booster that propels them into flight, off the ground, at night, and away from predators.

It sounds like science fiction, but this sort of parasitism is actually universal in Nature.  The best adaptions are where harmless parasites colonize the host and are simply carried around and fed. The “best” viral outbreaks of colds and flues, for example, keep their hosts alive, and allow them to recover—after they have passed on to another host. Germs don’t kill their hosts outright or they never get passed on. In fact, in the very best of both worlds, the parasites actually help the host to survive and thrive—as is the case with probiotics and our microbiomes.

But scientists are uncovering an even more clever—and scary—strategy for parasites. Some not only colonize their hosts, but actually take over their behavior as well. Directing them to engage in behaviors that are bad (even fatal) for the host, but favor the survival of the parasite. Such as the poor zombie bees.

In another example, tiny worms “rewire” the neurons of ants that host them, essentially hijacking the ant’s body. Or even a whole colony. These zombie ants then climb conspicuously onto blades of grass and wait, for a grazing sheep to come along and eat them. At which point the worms take over the sheep and breed in large numbers in the animals’ much bigger bodies. 

But it’s important to keep in mind that every organism—including humans—plays host to bacterial and viral parasites at all times. And it’s interesting to consider just how much they might be controlling our behavior, instead of just hitching a free ride and getting a free meal. 

And I don’t mean drastic behaviors like the zombie bees and ants display. But simple things we all take for granted as a “normal” part of life. Like symptoms of bacterial or viral infections, or a cold or flu? Some of these symptoms serve a distinct purpose. Coming down with a fever, for example, helps stop bacteria from reproducing until our immune systems have a chance to catch-up and clear the infection. But what about involuntary sneezing and coughing? All that seems to do is pass the germs onto the next host.  

But beyond parasitic worms, bacteria, and viruses, there is the matter of our own DNA molecules. Our DNA clearly “programs” all of our physical functions throughout the life cycle. So is it really the DNA that is in charge of our behavior? 

Does human DNA direct our behaviors toward irresistible urges to reproduce—simply pass on the DNA—making it Nature’s most ubiquitous “parasite”? 

It certainly seems plausible. After gestation, the growing fetus ‘takes over” the woman’s body, funneling off nutrients, potentially making her sick and even killing the mother at birth simply through the difficult process of childbirth itself (especially in the pre-obstetric era, but it still happens routinely even in the best hospitals). And then “parental instinct” takes over, in which parents are generally willing to sacrifice virtually all for the safety and survival of their children (i.e. their DNA).

This concept is known in biology as the “immortal zygote.” Everything in life happens for the benefit of the DNA, and what happens to our individual bodies in between is incidental. Then we have “programmed cell death” when post-reproductive individuals can no longer pass on their DNA. Which may be what aging is really all about. 

So, who’s really in charge here? If our DNA is really in charge of our bodies, including “programmed cell death,” then the entire idea and industry behind “anti-aging medicine” may simply be not biologically plausible.