A project is underway in New Zealand that could potentially save bees, beekeeping and millions of dollars. Not to mention spare many bees pain, suffering and death since AFB is a highly infectious bacterial disease that plagues bees in beehives.

The aim is to develop a scientific methodology for training detection (sniffer) dogs to sniff out American Foulbrood (AFB), which would create a ‘scent signature’ of the disease. This could save the beekeeping industry millions of dollars annually.

The project is led by DownUnder Honey, partnering with K9 Search Medical Detection Training Centre (Pete Gifford) and Massey University researchers. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is on board, contributing $50,000 of the $95,000 one-year project through Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures (SFF Futures). Others supporting the project that have contributed funding and will help with fieldwork are the Southern North Island Beekeeping Group and the Honey Industry Trust.

In this unrelated 1:41-minute video by Beekeeping IsGood, you can see how to easily detect AFB:



This would not be the first time that dogs are used to detect AFB, but previous methods have yielded inconclusive results in the field. According to Jason Prior, owner of DownUnder Honey, this is why a large part of the project is to come up with a pure form of the disease that can be grown in the lab, so there is no chance of other scents being in the mix. This way dogs would be introduced to it in a clinically sterile environment which should improve detection.

Bees that are contaminated with AFB usually are also carrying other diseases, and these can vary so the scent varies. In previous trainings, dogs were trained on infected colonies without isolating the target scent. That will be different in this project, which should produce more reliable detection dogs. In the new project training, the focus will be on detecting actual AFB spores and other relevant AFB bacteria that have originated directly from a laboratory.

In New Zealand, AFB has always been treated by destroying the hives and hive equipment, and this can be very costly. In other countries, AFB is treated by antibiotics but over time the disease has developed resistance to them. New Zealand’s apiculture industry currently pays more than $2 million in annual levies for beehive inspections.

There are almost one million registered beehives in New Zealand, but only about 4,000 hives are physically inspected in a year according to Mr. Prior.

If New Zealand can eradicate AFB, it will be the world’s first, and this is their goal. It only takes dogs two minutes to inspect an apiary of 20 hives. In comparison, an inspector could take 90 minutes or longer. Dogs can also identify contaminated equipment, indicating which external sources of infection should be destroyed.

This project could be a true game changer for New Zealand’s apiculture industry, according to Steve Penno, MPI Director Investment Programmes. Detecting disease early would reduce the need to destroy hives and lessen lost production.

If the project is a success, New Zealand will be the first country in the world to use dogs to detect AFB. The detector dogs could be made available to farmers as a service.