Bee disease threat

It’s unclear how a highly contagious brood disease entered South Africa, but it could devastate commercial and hobby apiarists, and farmers depending on bees for pollination. Haylee Robbins reports.

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It’s unclear how a highly contagious brood disease entered South Africa, but it could devastate commercial and hobby apiarists, and farmers depending on bees for pollination. Haylee Robbins reports.

How American Foul Brood (AFB) disease came into South Africa is still unknown, as imported honey and honeybee products are irradiated, but with the advent of AFB in sub-Saharan Africa, an area previously free of the disease, there’s good reason to believe non-irradiated honey or honeybee products have found a way into the country.
On 25 February the Agricultural Research Council Plant Protection Research Institute (ARC-PPRI) confirmed the outbreak of AFB in certain Western Cape honeybee colonies. Mike Allsopp, head of the Honeybee Research Section of the ARC-PPRI, became aware of the disease when a local beekeeper experienced problems with unhealthy colonies.
The disease was first thought to be European Foul Brood, which plagued Western Cape apiaries last year, but as symptoms were atypical samples were sent to the PPRI’s laboratory in Pretoria. These tested positive for AFB.
Since receiving notification of the outbreak from the Department of Agriculture (DoA) John Moodie, the South African Bee Industry Organisation (SABIO) chairperson, said four beekeeping operations in the Western Cape have been confirmed to have AFB in their colonies. But the extent of the infestation is still unknown as the symptoms are slow to appear and surveys still need to be carried out.
The DoA urged all beekeepers to act with extreme caution, keep colonies and apiaries apart and not to move honeybees from apiary to apiary, and to treat all beekeeping equipment as contaminated.
Although the four contaminated apiaries are cooperating with authorities, the only way to eradicate the disease is to burn the entire hive, including the bees, wax, frames and honey, and bury the ashes. Infected apiaries could face prolonged “standstill” orders of up to 18 months and will need help and compensation to ensure their continued viability and cooperation.
Allsopp said commercial beekeepers are likelier to comply with rigorous elimination of infected hives, but smaller hobbyists may be reluctant to report outbreaks and the issue could go underground.
The solution will depend largely on the action or inaction of beekeepers and the DoA which is ultimately responsible for containing the disease. If all beekeepers adhere to department’s advice until the disease has been effectively quarantined and destroyed, they could prevent its spread and a permanent battle with it. The disease could destroy thousands of hives, cause poor pollination of crops and orchards, and ruin beekeepers.
As South African bees are classified under “plant health” there’s a need to amend current legislation to allow for containment of the disease. The DoA has established a management team and initiated an interim plan which could see infected apiaries issued with an initial “standstill” period of up to three months.
“The outbreak is being reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health and draft regulations have been forwarded for ministerial approval, which will soon be promulgated,” said DoA spokesperson Priscilla Tsotso Sehoole.

Know your enemy

A contaminated brood will have a distinctive smell, which the ARC-PPRI’s Mike Allsopp likened to a combination of “stale beer and old boots”. As the disease is new to South African beekeepers, the first sign to look for will be a discoloured, sunken brood, coffee-coloured larvae and brown or black scales at the bottom of honey cells.
When a diseased larva is pricked with a twig or matchstick it will come away with a mucous-like, ropy thread. Diseased cells will have a shotgun or pepperbox pattern. Unchecked, AFB will affect the entire brood and result in colonies becoming weak and vulnerable to invasion.
Badly affected colonies are likely to collapse and die. When a colony dies, ‘robber’ bees from nearby colonies carry the infected honey and pollen back to their colonies, extending the outbreak to other areas.
For more information visit or contact Mike Allsopp on (021) 887 4690 or e-mail [email protected].