25 March 2022
When it comes to treat bee diseases there’s a huge gap. There are – good and efficient – varroa treatments. But other than that? Not much. Here we rely on good practices. There are also other bee health issues than varroa, obviously. The list of pathogens and parasites is quite long, though not each one is of larger concern. For the often neglected nosema (now Vairomorpha ceranae), there are at least some food additives that help. And also oxalic acid has a curative effect on the infection. For American and European Foulbrood the strategies differ depending on the region: In the EU, the use of antibiotics isn’t allowed in beekeeping. In North America, on the other hand, antibiotics are common.
This shows different approaches to how good practices could look like. Europe has a much more restrictive approach than North America, perhaps. With good reason, in my opinion, but we’ll come back to that. Let’s first set the foundation of the approach I would propose. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to teach at the Bee Pathology Course in Bologna. It’s the most intense course of this sort that I know. Four full days talking about the main issues, but also about rarer diseases like Lothmaria passim (a gut parasite). It started with a lesson on honey bee welfare and ended with legal and sanitary conditions for beekeeping. And as if four days of lessons weren’t enough, the participants pelted us with questions during the breaks and at the end of the lessons. Great fun.
The need of working together
The students in this course were beekeepers and vets taught by bee scientists (biologists like myself and agronomists). This was something I noticed only coming back: It was the perfect setting, in my opinion. Because every group has a different approach, too. Beekeepers are concerned about bee health in their everyday life. They live from the productivity of their colonies. The vets, on the other hand, have a “supervising” role. They control that no illegal treatments are used, infectious diseases don’t spread, or the food safety isn’t compromised. Often, the relationship isn’t the best. Who likes controls? Beekeepers often claim a lack of knowledge by the vets. So, not only the control, but also the feeling of being bullied by someone with less knowledge. With both groups together in the same course, I’m sure that the next visits at the apiary will be different.
(Honey) bee scientists, finally, again have a different approach. It’s the basic and applied research on issues, quality of the products, analysis of residues, etc. Traditionally, knowledge transfer is a huge part of the work, too. Personally, I financed my PhD partly with talks and articles for beekeepers. And this is neither an exception nor does it stop after having the degree. Giving beekeepers the necessary information to work at the best level possible is part of the job. This is getting even more important with the bee health challenges we’re facing. Varroa changed the picture for ever, emerging virus infections, climate change, etc. will continue changing it. This needs collaboration. A key sentence for me came from Dr. Antonio Nanetti, the organizer of the course: “We get the job done best when everybody does their part of it.”. Beekeepers, vets, scientists, consultants in concerted action – what a utopia.
Good practices for bee health
This post was triggered by a recent paper on effective control of honey bee parasites. Because it showed the different approaches I talked about at the beginning. The common ground is the awareness that parasites and pathogens are a major reason for colony declines and that treating them increases overall bee health. The author also talked about improving beekeeping as a whole. Totally agree on that, that’s a never ending task. However, unfortunately the aspect of good practices was almost missing in this paper – crucial for controlling bee diseases in my opinion.
Let’s discuss American Foulbrood (AFB) as an example. In North America, as mentioned, treating with antibiotics is common. In Europe, they’re banned in beekeeping. AFB is highly contagious, so when it comes up it can get a huge issue very soon. So what do we do in Europe to control this disease? First of all, it’s a notifiable. When cases come up, there’s a quarantine zone – the size depends on the country. Formerly, colonies were destroyed when found positive with AFB. Nowadays, a “shook-swarm method” and sanitizing hives and all materials are becoming more common. Together with huge efforts in training and education for beekeepers.
Concerted actions for bee health
And guess what? Of course there are AFB outbreaks, but it’s not the largest issue. When it comes up, the concerted action of beekeepers, bee inspectors, authorities, and vets gets it under control. There are some regions which are more often in quarantine. Usually, caused by the same beekeepers. Those who don’t respect good practices, the hygienic rules. But AFB is under control without antibiotics. This is a good example of what I mean with concerted action of different groups (beekeepers, researchers, authorities). It’s not the perfect system, obviously. There are issues. Nonetheless, it works, AFB isn’t present almost everywhere.
The thing is: Treatments, veterinary medicines, are important. Obviously. However, only if necessary. They aren’t miracle cures you can use without major thought or education. This is especially true for sensitive topics like antibiotics. There are worldwide efforts to use these compounds more restrictively to maintain their efficacy. Because overusing them creates resistance. Bacteria strains with multiple resistance are becoming a huge issue, also due to the excessive use in veterinary medicine. So, in my opinion, the restrictive policy in Europe regarding antibiotics is the right thing to do.
The integrated concept also applies to varroa treatments: As much as needed, as little as possible. This again, needs knowledge about the treatments. About how and when to use them. A project in different European countries clearly showed the relationship between the education of the beekeepers and colony survival. Projects like the Bee Informed Partnership in the US also work on improving honey bee health by research, education, and outreach. This is part of good practices, in my opinion. So, in this aspect, the approaches aren’t that different. Concerted action for honey bee health. Like in the course in Bologna.
P.S.: Teaching and consulting on good practices is what I do. Science-backed and adapted to regional conditions. If you want to know more, contact me with the form below!