The Regional Bee Inspector graced our natural beekeepers’ meeting with his presence last week. “It was our best meeting so far” echoed around the fire-lit pub as we prepared to leave, having overrun a little – and we could have pinned him down for at least another full day of gentle interrogation.
For one jaded in the expectation of having questions answered to my (peculiar) satisfaction, the regional bee inspector was a delightful surprise. He proved to have a real depth of knowledge and perhaps just as important, to be a good listener. Specifically, I was expecting that an explanation of the foul broods, European and American, would describe life-cycles of microscopic whatever (bacteria as it turned out) and fail to really enlighten as to any possible ‘cause’ ie what are these particular symptoms trying to say is out of balance?
European foul brood (EFB) is quite different to American foul brood (AFB). The ‘foul brood’ appellation refers to the smell that can accompany late stages of both diseases but this is due to the secondary bacteria that come to ‘clean up’ the debris caused by the original culprits. These culprits are quite different in the two foul broods.
European Foul Brood (EFB)
Nurse bees regurgitate food from their stomach to feed the new brood. EFB bacteria live in the stomach and are thus passed from adult to larvae. Adult bees can identify and eject ‘foul brood’ as long as numbers are not too vast. The disease is ‘containable’ therefore.
When food is short the ratio of EFB bacteria to food in the stomach changes. For larvae this means starvation as the bacteria uses more and more of the food to multiply.
American Foul Brood (AFB)
AFB is a highly infectious spore producing bacteria which breeds extremely rapidly in the gut of very young larvae. The bacteria moves into the haemolymph where it turns the larvae into a slimy gloop. Without going into further details here the priority in the UK is to prevent an outbreak. Rigorous measures are in place to ensure that if the disease is found it will not be passed on. The incidence is currently very low in this country, fortunately.
AFB spores can live for 40 years and as they can be introduced to a colony by feeding honey from an unknown source, this practice is frowned upon. Bees ‘robbing’ honey from an infected colony will spread spores too.
Both foul broods are notifiable diseases ie you are legally bound to notify the government body FERA if you find signs of one of these diseases.
How will you know if you have a foul brood disease?
‘Twisted’, white larvae ejected from the hive would alert you to EFB whereas to find AFB an examination of the hive would be necessary. Sunken, dark brood cells that may appear in a scattergun pattern on the comb if AFB is present and poking a match into one of these cells will reveal the sticky substance that the bees find so difficult to remove.
By the time you can smell the foulness it’s too late to take preventative measures.
Impact for natural beekeepers?
I can see why learning about these diseases, especially AFB, might seem to suggest the importance of inspecting your hives but I’m not sure it’s so clear. Although spread of both foul broods can happen naturally, beekeepers can and do exacerbate the problem.
EFB can wax and wane in a colony so the disease bacteria may well be present in ‘healthy’ colonies, just in lesser quantities. If it’s a question of degree then minimizing stress, including opening hives to remove combs, would seem the more sensible option.
What struck me most about the description of EFB was that the bacteria start to predominate in the gut when food is scarce. Good forage, all year round, has to be high on the solution agenda, surely? Yet again I’m overwhelmed at how important it is to allow those apparently insignificant little wild flowers to be.
The inspector mentioned that the EFB bacteria was a soil-borne bacteria originally. Could it be a decomposer in the wrong place? Bees choose their homes up high, away from the earth, yet man’s convenience brings them much closer to the ground. I would love to hear any thoughts on this subject (polite). It will be interesting to see how bees fare in sun hives with regard to EFB.
AFB seems a more curious sounding disease. Any infectious disease will be so much worse when populations are high, so large apiaries or those close to each other will be more vulnerable. But I’m left with questions: The spores live a long time in honey but what are they doing there? How did they get into the bee’s realm?
Government policy for dealing with foul brood diseases:
EFB ‘compulsory treatment or destruction’
AFB ‘compulsory destruction of infected colonies’
The Government Inspector suggested reading the government leaflets on these diseases but having done so I find them lacking in that human touch where the glimpses of true understanding lie and that I think made this Government Inspector responsible for our “best meeting so far”. So thank you.
Any errors in describing the foul broods are entirely my own – please do read the leaflets
Contacts for local Natural Beekeepers’ groups coming soon