A new frontier of schnoz sleuthing: Bee disease detection

It’s commonly said that dogs are man’s best friend. That might be true, but many also work alongside people, frequently utilizing their heightened sense of smell. Dogs work on police forces, sniffing out drugs, or bombs. In prisons dogs work to sniff out contraband or as crowd control. Some dogs are used to detect health problems in humans, such as low insulin levels in diabetics. All of these practices are fairly common, and are used widely in the United States as well as other parts of the world.

However, some jobs done by dogs are a bit more unusual. Since 1982 the Maryland Department of Agriculture has had at least one dog as a member of their apiary inspectors team. This practice is not just uncommon though. It does not appear that any other place in the country uses dogs for this purpose, although there is one dog, specially outfitted in his own beekeeping suit, doing the same work in Australia.

The canine detectives are trained to sniff out American Foulbrood, or AFB, in a hive. If AFB is detected the dog will sit by the infected hive to notify their handler.

American Foulbrood is a very serious bacterial disease, one which infected hives rarely recover from. The disease has two stages, the spore and the vegetative stage. A hive is infected when a worker bee picks up AFB spores from an affected colony or contaminated equipment. The spores are transferred to the developing larvae through food, and during the bacterium's vegetative stage, and the bacteria spores rapidly multiply, creating billions of new spores. When the brood cell is capped and the larvae are sealed the young larvae, usually glistening white, turn a coffee brown then black, and sink to the floor of the cell in a goopy mass. Eventually this will dry into a hard scale on the cell’s bottom, which will contain many spores and infect future larvae in the cell.

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Illustration by Eleanor Beckerman

American Foulbrood will eventually kill almost every hive it infects. Furthermore, it continues to wreak havoc on the area’s bee population even after the originally infected hive is decimated. Bees frequently steal honey and nectar from weak or dead hives, and AFB spores can be transmitted to a new hive through this process.

Spores can also exist for up to 30 years on beekeeping equipment. If equipment is left unsterilized it will infect other hives that it is used on. The most reliable way to clean equipment and hives is to burn them. Unfortunately, even this is not guaranteed to purge the equipment of the bacteria.

Given the high possibility for contamination with AFB it seems only logical to inspect hives in the most efficient way possible. Maryland's chief apiary inspector, and owner and handler of the current apiary inspection hound, Cybil Preston can check around 10 hives in 45 minutes. Mack, her dog, can check 100 in the same amount of time. Over Mack’s predecessor, Klinker’s entire career 100% of hives he identified as AFB positive were confirmed when later tested by the USDA. And while Mack’s statistics are not currently out, in field testing he correctly identified 100% of infected hives.  

Clearly, introducing apiary inspection dogs could drastically improve efficiency in apiary departments all across the United States, and even across the world.

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