Missy has quite a sniffer

Sniffing out American Foul Brood

Smart Farmer How To
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Beekeepers must contend with many diseases and pests, some recent arrivals in Australia, some expected arrivals in the foreseeable future.

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SPECIAL: Missy Giggins could play an important role in the early detection of American Foul Brood.

SPECIAL: Missy Giggins could play an important role in the early detection of American Foul Brood.

Beekeepers must contend with many diseases and pests, some recent arrivals in Australia, some expected arrivals in the foreseeable future.

But one, perhaps the worst, has always been with us.

It is a bacterial infection of developing bee brood called American Foul Brood, known to beekeepers as AFB.

It is fatal, incurable and contagious. Contagious to other bees, not to humans.

Under the Biosecurity Act which controls beekeeping, beekeepers are obliged to know how to detect it and to deal with it.

This means immediately destroying the infected colony of bees and burning or irradiating all hives and equipment involved.

Detecting it in its late stages with the naked eye is easy, but too late; it has already infected other hives.

Early detection occupies much of the time spent in training beginners and sessions in field days and conferences.

There are testing kits to help and free laboratory services available to confirm the diagnosis microbiologically.

All this involves opening the hive and beekeepers are obliged to examine every frame in every hive at least twice a year and preferably monthly in warmer seasons.

The diseased hive has a smell, not great in early stages, but enough to inspire Hunter Valley beekeepers, Sam and Bianca Giggins to embark on a bold and an ambitious project of training a sniffer dog to detect it.

After all, they asked, dogs sniff out explosives and drugs, so why not a hive infected with AFB?

Sam Giggins is former apiary manager of the Hunter Valley Amateur Beekeepers and he and Bianca now are professional beekeepers with the name Williams River Honey based in Raymond Terrace.

So along came Missy Giggins, an eight and a half month old Belgian Malinois working dog with a pedigree of achieving ancestors.

Her parents were champion scent detectors, and a grandfather was Australian Defence Force top canine in 2013.

Along with a professional trainer, Steve Williams, Sam and Bianca trained Missy to detect an AFB infected hive without opening it.

First she learned to focus on a card on the floor, then on the smell of a household drain, eventually graduating to her ultimate task of recognising the smell of AFB infection.

Sam and Bianca introduced Missy to the world of beekeepers at the Tocal Beekeepers Field Day on October 12, with a most remarkable presentation which drew repeated applause from the hall filled audience.

Six beehives were lined up on the stage as in an apiary.

Each contained packaged bees stored in ventilated jars to simulate the familiar scents of a healthy hive, but one also had another ventilated jar containing a comb infected with American Foul Brood.

Missy was instructed to sniff. She repeatedly put her nose to the entrance of the infected hive despite it being shifted in the line and even placed on top of a non-infected one.

Sam admitted that Missy has been stung in the course of her training, and though previous experiments have failed because of stings, Missy has not so far been deterred by the experience.

Her trainers are working towards conditioning her to wear a veil and custom-made protective suit.

Surely this must be a very significant achievement with enormous potential for beekeeping, and Sam and Bianca must be congratulated on their success so far.

With the objective of getting involved with pollination contractors and orchardists, Missy will be trained to perform sweeps through commercial sized apiaries.

It is hoped that she will be ready for testing by the next almond bloom.

This venture has the potential to be a major game changer against the scourge of American Foul Brood.

Bees and roundup

It seems that everyone uses glyphosate weed killer (Roundup) - gardeners, farmers, councils.

Does it affect bees? It is a herbicide, blocking an enzyme essential to the life of plants.

As such it is safe for humans and animals who do not have that enzyme. Published material in 2013 stated categorically that bees also lack that enzyme and consequently it is completely safe for them.

But recent evidence casts doubt on that conclusion.

The same enzyme is found in some bacteria. Is that important? Recent studies indicate that it is.

Our bodies are colonised with bacteria from top to bottom, from the mouth to the anus. The bowel teems with millions of them.

It has been stated that humans have more bacterial DNA than human.

It is now believed that many aspects of our general health depend on the health of these inner organisms, the bowel 'microbiota' and its genetic composition, the 'microbiome'.

So what about bees? They also have a microbiota dominated by some eight species of organisms which influence their growth and lower susceptibility to invasion by other bacteria which are pathogenic, not so friendly.

It has been shown that these 'good' germs are affected by glyphosate at concentrations met in the environment and poisoning them causes susceptibility to attack by opportunistic bacteria and increased larval mortality.

This subtle effect on the health of the colony may not be immediately evident to the beekeeper other than as unexplained weakening of the hive.

And there is another, not so obvious effect the widespread use of glyphosate has on the welfare of bees.

Bees love flowers whether they belong to what we consider useless 'weeds' or desirable plants.

They will forage on them indiscriminately wherever they are, in the paddock around the apiary, on the way to a targeted floral source or amongst the plants or fruit trees of an agricultural crop.

This wanton destruction of unwanted weeds is just another assault on the habitat and food sources of Australian bees.

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