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Bees under attack

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Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2012 4:00 am

SOUTH PORTLAND – If you happen to see a blue honeybee buzzing about your flowers, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. It was spray painted that way, and not by teens committing a summertime prank.

The bees, marked by volunteers with the Maine State Beekeepers Association “swarm team,” had been raiding a dead hive beneath the eves of a home on Sawyer Street in South Portland, near the Cape Elizabeth town line. The volunteers removed the hive May 12, and sections were sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture “Bee Lab” in Beltsville, Md. for analysis. On May 24, Erin McGregor-Forbes of Portland, beekeepers association president, distributed the bad news – American foulbrood is back.

Largely absent from Maine before making a limited return engagement in recent years, American foulbrood is a rod-shaped bacterium that feeds on bee larvae less than three days old. Within two to three breeding cycles – about six weeks – it can turn a once-vibrant hive into a crumbling corpse.

Now, beekeepers in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough are on the lookout for those blue bees, which could prove to be harbingers of death after ransacking the brood-filled hive on Sawyer Street of its remaining honey, inadvertently tracking up millions of microscopic spores during the raid for transplant to new victims.

“Really, it’s like a kind of plague,” said backyard beekeeper Louise Sullivan of Cape Elizabeth on Friday. “Everybody has to really be on their toes, because it can jump like checkers from yard to yard and spread very rapidly.”

American foulbrood is not, says Sullivan, related to the so-called “colony collapse disorder” that has mystified apiarists nationwide for the last few years. It that case, the hives are found vacant, all of the bees appearing to have just wandered off. But with foulbrood, which Sullivan said is “well defined and millions of years old,” the larvae remain, rotting in their cells, each body a host to more than 100 million spores.

Described by the USDA as “the most widespread and destructive” of bee diseases, American foulbrood can easily decimate honeybees in a wide region by hopscotching the 3-mile flying radius of drones.

“Unfortunately, this means we will all need to be particularly vigilant in this area with regard to colony health inspections for some years to come,” wrote McGregor-Forbes, in an email to area beekeepers. “There is nothing you can do at this point other than watch and hope.”

“It will start showing up probably within the next couple of weeks,” said Sullivan on Friday.  

A beekeeper for almost six years, Sullivan maintains two hives at her home on Two Lights Road. Part of a growing “informal association” of Cape residents who keep bees as a hobby – there are, she says, “probably 60 hives” at 17 homes in town – Sullivan spent Saturday inspecting the cells of her colonies.

“It’s been an amazing journey for me,” said Sullivan, a self-described “big gardener,” who took up beekeeping upon retirement as a way to help along the natural world from which she’s long taken produce.

“I’ve always been grateful for the bees and thought maybe, because of where I live, I could provide a little haven for them,” she said. “It’s been an amazing journey for me. It’s just astounding to have had the privilege of observing a bee colony.”

What Sullivan was looking for on Saturday, however, was the telltale characteristics of a hive that has succumbed to the disease. These include sunken, perforated cells which, when subjected to the “toothpick test,” produce what Sullivan calls “long, slimy, ropey stuff.” That stuff is what remains from the body of what was once a baby bee.

There is no cure for American foulbrood. All that can be done is to destroy an infected hive, preferably by burning, in hopes of breaking the deadly cycle. But the bacterium is resilient. According to state apiarist Tony Jadczak, it can survive dormant on tool handles and other garden implements for as long as 40 years.

That’s a concern given the recent rise in beekeeping as a hobby in Maine. Apart from the 52,000 hives brought into Maine each year by 36 commercial operators – largely for apple and blueberry pollination – there are thought to be more than 1,000 amateur beekeepers manning at least 8,000 hives in Maine, based on Maine State Beekeepers Association membership rolls and enrollment at University of Maine Cooperative Extension workshops.

Of these, 6,975 hives were registered with the state by 621 beekeepers in 2010, the most recent year for which a full count is available. Reflecting a recent trend, that rate of registration is up 150 hobbyists since 2008 – a 32 percent increase.

South Portland had a single known beekeeper in 2008, when it passed an ordinance governing the activity. Last year, the City Council tightened those rules based partly on concern about continued growth of the activity.

Meanwhile, the growth in beekeeping has far outpaced the state’s ability to track disease. According to Jadczak in his most recent annual report, delivered April 20, 2011, the lack of a part-time summer inspector since 2008 has cut back the number of hives he’s able to look at each year. In the 2010 random survey, just 1,416 colonies, both private and commercial, were opened. Of those, 29 (2.05 percent) were infested with American foulbrood.

“There is undoubtedly more active AFB in the area,” said McGregor-Forbes, advising beekeepers to clean their hands and tools with alcohol when moving between colonies and offering inspection assistance from the beekeepers association.

The concern is that not all hobbyists will get the message, or that those who do, having more love than financial interest in their hives, may be reluctant to destroy their hives at the first sign of blight.

If foulbrood does show up, it would likely hit hardest in the strongest hives, because they have the “most foraging vigor,” said McGregor-Forbes.

Unfortunately, because the Sawyer Street hive was being actively robbed “for quite some time,” it’s likely too late for pesticides like Terramycin, while using antibiotics at this point “will only mask the symptoms,” she said.

“It is really vital that anyone who has bee hives register them with the state,” said Sullivan. “If anybody sees anything that concerns them about their hives, they should contact the MSBA or the state.”

But for now, Sullivan said, it’s mostly a waiting game, to see just how serious this problem is going to be and how widespread the die-off might become.

“Now, all we can do is do regular hive inspections,” she said.

Welcome to the discussion.