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How common is foul brood in honey?

Beekeepers are frequently warned not to feed honey from untrusted sources to their colonies because it can carry the spores of American Foul Brood (AFB). Furthermore, we know the spores of AFB are not affected by standard pasteurization methods because they are highly resistant to heat. Pressure cooking at 250° F (121° C) for three minutes will kill the spores, as will other combinations of temperature, pressure, and time.

However, as “saving the bees” has become a popular activity for many people, non-beekeepers frequently write to me and explain how they are doing their part to save the bees by feeding them honey. For any number of reasons, these individuals cannot become—or do not want to become—beekeepers, yet they want to do something to help the honey bees.

When they write to me, I always take the time to explain the hazards of feeding honey, but of course I don’t know if they heed the warning or not. But more problematic are all the folks who don’t write, don’t ask, don’t know, and just assume they are doing the best thing for the bees. For every person who writes into a blog, there are thousands who don’t. And since I get a lot of e-mails about this, I assume the number of people feeding bees is staggering.

I have a picture in my mind of a scrupulous beekeeper, carefully tending his bees, taking precautions against the worst diseases, and doing everything by the book, while a neighbor down the road blithely buys imported honey from the grocery stores and fills a dozen feeders. It’s an uncomfortable thought.

So I began to wonder how often contaminated honey actually transmits AFB. We hear the warnings all the time, but I’ve never actually heard of a case where contaminated honey was thought to be the cause. So how common is American foul brood in honey? Come to think of it, how common is American foul brood in honey bee colonies?

The only time I ever saw AFB was in the hive of a friend, and that was many years ago. I seldom get mail asking about it. I’ve heard of a few recent cases of European foul brood, but not AFB. Nearly all the mail I get is about Varroa mites, deformed wing virus, nosema, CCD, chalkbrood, tracheal mites, and hive beetles, but nary a word about AFB.

So how common is AFB? How big of a problem are AFB spores in honey? Should we worry about scores of people feeding grocery store honey to any honey bee that wanders by? Or is foul brood in honey not a worry?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

Dave
Reply

I saw two confirmed cases of AFB on Cape Cod (Mass.) this fall. It’s rare, but it does happen. And yes, both cases were related as the nucs both come from the same apiary.

Eddy Radar
Reply

Good golly, there are actually people feeding honey to bees?
Last I looked, it was $7.5lb, a bit pricey for wildlife feeding — and are there really such things as “bee feeders”? (Seems a waste in the winter, aren’t the bees all in bed?!)
They’d be better off planting bee-favorite wildflowers, which would help NATIVE bee populations, the truly endangered ones.

-Eddy

Rusty
Reply

Eddy,

“They’d be better off planting bee-favorite wildflowers, which would help NATIVE bee populations, the truly endangered ones.”

That’s the perfect answer.

Suz
Reply

I don’t have a clue. Nor have I heard any beekeepers discuss AFB. A university might have the most accurate answer.

Emily
Reply

In the UK our bee inspectors keep AFB incidence reports, which give an idea of how common it is here: http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/public/BeeDiseases/diseaseIncidenceMaps.cfm

You can also see a trends graph which may be more helpful: http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/public/BeeDiseases/trendDiseaseChart.cfm – the numbers are small, under 70 colonies confirmed with AFB from around 40,000 inspected each year.

We have different legal procedures for treating AFB than the U.S., as colonies confirmed to have AFB must be burnt and destroyed. We’re also not allowed to use antibiotics to prevent AFB. This may cut down on how common it is here.

Emily
Reply

Oops just to add it’s early morning here and in a bit of a rush – think under 70 per 40,000 inspected is me getting the graph wrong as it shows regional figures. So under 70 per region but you’d need to add up the figures per region to get the national total.

Rusty
Reply

Emily,

Interesting. It raises another question: since preventive treatment is allowed here in the US, I wonder how many beekeepers do it. I know that AFB developed lots of resistance to terramycin and they’ve moved on to other antibiotics, tylosin, I think. But just like AFB itself, I never hear anything about prophylactic treatments.

Emily
Reply

I have sometimes come across U.S. beekeepers on forums who use antibiotics prophylatically, but if you never hear anything about it perhaps the number of people doing that are small.

Philippa Burgess
Reply

Here in the UK, if your colony tests positive for EFB, the bees, comb and honey are destoyed by burning as it is a notifiable disease – as is AFB. I presume this means that the honey is regarded as being contaminated so I would imagine the same would be for AFB. Therefore I would be rather concerned about using honey from an infected colony to feed other bees in case this spreads the disease (s).

I’ve not heard about dogooders using supermarket honey to feed bees over here – honey is far too expensive!!!!!

Andrew
Reply

Hi Rusty,

A more experienced beekeeper once told me that colonies can be carriers of foul brood without experiencing any negative consequences. Now I don’t know what the veracity is of this claim, perhaps you can shine a light.

We had a short outbreak of AFB here in the Netherlands during the last season. There were about 5 reported cases, I think the policy here is still to exterminate the entire apiary so I don’t know how keen beekeepers are to report cases of foul brood.

That same beekeeper told me that there is a way to free a colony of foul brood. You should shake the bees of the frames into an case you can seal (obviously with mesh). Get rid of the hive then keep the bees enclosed until they begin to die from starvation and then place them a clean hive. He said that the foul brood is in the honey and you should make sure that the bees have consumed all the honey in their system, after which they should be free of foul brood.

Again, I don’t know if there is any truth to this method.

Rusty
Reply

Hey Andrew,

I believe the first is true: you can have carriers that have no symptoms. As far as that method of ridding a colony of foul brood, I’ve never heard of anything working other than destroying the whole colony. But I don’t know . . . maybe it works.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty

This is the first I have heard of well-intentioned persons feeding random honey to bees, Around here, it’s all “Take action to save the bees! Sign our petition!” To give them credit, they seem to prefer to eat the honey, to buy it locally and know their beekeeper. And my response is always the same: Folks, signing a petition is not “action.” If you want to take real action, sow white clover in your lawns.

So there’s two good suggestions.
Thanks, I’ll keep an ear out.
Nan
Northern Kenrucky

TravisB
Reply

I imagine you try and steer these people towards the sugar patties instead of honey? Or do you try to get them to cook the honey to attempt to pasteurize it and make it safer?

Rusty
Reply

Travis,

I suggest planting flowers or (if they insist on feeders) sugar syrup.

Kristine
Reply

Hi Rusty, I live in Mill Bay British Columbia and the 2nd Apiary inspector was by to see about the health of my hive. I have a single colony. And there is AFB. I am devastated as I must now kill the bees and burn everything. An email went out to beeks within a 3 kilometre radius to inform them as well. I’m so sad!

Rusty
Reply

Kristine,

That is sad, especially with only the one hive. I wonder where they picked it up.

Kristine
Reply

Hi Rusty, I suspect it was brought to me by either drifting bees from the area, or two beekeepers who came to visit to mentor me as I am (or was) a 2nd year beek. Two years ago I aquired 2 nucs from a supplier which the inspector himself inspected and stated they were the best managed bees he had ever seen. So I very much doubt that was the source. I have never visited any other hives in the area. My neighbour set up hives after I did using used equipment and perhaps there were spores in there. Who knows for sure, but here we are 🙁

Lynne
Reply

You state pressure cooking at 250 for 3 minutes will kill any AFB in honey, but that there are other combinations of time, temp, and pressure also. I would like to know the best way to do this. We do structure hive removals and relocations. We would like a pasteurization method that will kill AFB so that we can feed it to our bees safely. Thanks in advance.

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