Bees and Biosecurity: Simple measures to control infections and keeping the bees happy.

Trees and Bees, the obvious top bar link.

I have been promising to write something up for the blog for a few weeks now. What with the recent furore over Ash Die Back and other tree diseases its been one long road of worry for many people across the country in the tree world. Trees being my other big passion as a verifier for the Ancient Tree Hunt as well as a follower of the Ancient Tree Forum. Disease is so easily transported from place to place and most of the time we don’t even know we are carrying anything. That’s the problem with many microscopic pathogens. They get everywhere. But bees and trees are linked by virtue of habitat. Hollow trees are an ideal home to wild colonies of bees.

We already know about a lot of the infections that bees can catch and being the type of creature they are, mixing with other bees on flowering plants, it is hardly surprising that they can get just about anything that is floating about. Bit like an infants school really. So what I decided to do was to put together some ideas for consideration regarding simple measures that don’t cost a fortune but ones that would help minimise the risk of cross infections between fellow bee keepers hives, and in the case of those with more than one hive, between hives in an apiary.

The Hive

First thing to remember is the more we invade the bee kingdom the more they get stressed out and become vulnerable to infections. Its the same for us. So taking note of something Gareth said at a previous meeting ‘Minimal interference’. That is the key really. It also has another benefit. By minimising interference we also minimise contact with us and our clothing and also minimise the risk of pathogens floating on the breeze from gaining entry to the hive. We also minimise the chill factor which leads to a number of issues with bee brood. Keep it simple and minimise interference.

The Suits/Smocks

So when was the last time any of you washed your bee keeping smocks/suits? I bet it is something that most have not thought to do for quite some time. I’m not being clever here but because I got some grease (from the grease bands on the hive legs) on my smock I have had to wash my smock a few times already. Its the only one I have so I don’t have the luxury of a spare whilst one is drying. I bet a lot of others are in the same position too.

Multi coloured suits and the odd smock.

My advise is to wash the smock in natural detergents with something like Zoflora or Dettol added when any notifiable infection has been encountered. I defer to advise from our more experienced members here. This could be done at least once during the winter period ready for the spring season start and as required once every couple of months or so as the season progresses. Obviously if an infection occurs within your apiary or you come into contact with an infection visiting elsewhere then this is another occasion where it would be prudent to give the gear a thorough clean. The only other piece of kit that would be very useful is a disposable plastic apron as worn in bakeries and food shops. I have seen the delicatessen staff wearing white plastic aprons to prevent cross contamination of the various meats and cheeses etc. Useful apron for when your collecting the honey too.

Swarms and new opportunities

One other occasion that would warrant a wash of the smocks and suits is just prior to the swarming period. May sound odd but it occurred to me that when a swarm occurs it is also a time when the natural parasites are reduced due to their life cycle being interrupted. If we consider that there are also other pathogens that have cycles interrupted by swarming it makes sense to consider the swarm as a potential break point in these cycles and therefore starting afresh makes sense not just for the new colony but also a clean smock as well. I have Peter to thank for the little revelation on the link between swarming and the Varroa mite life cycle being interrupted. So keeping a clean smock at the start of the swarming season will prevent any existing established pathogens from the old colonies from re-infecting the new swarm allowing the cycle to be broken. Especially important as we will all have a real hands on experience with the swarm whether we like it or not. As for new swarms from out of the area there is no telling what state they will be in so again start clean and stay clean.

When washing smocks and suits I put the veil into a pillowcase and tie the top. This prevents the veil from becoming snagged in anything else in the machine, especially the large teeth on bee suit zips and fleece zips. The suit zips I do up so they don’t get tangled in other stuff and I know this is probably teaching granny etc but check the pockets for anything that you may have stuck in them. Won’t be the first time that someone has washed a sticky sweet or some chewing gum in the pocket and that is hell to get rid of. 🙂 You might even find that missing hive tool.

Getting a feel for it

The gloves you use should be clean and free from any contaminating material before you venture from one hive to the next in an apiary. Likewise if visiting another bee keeper then clean gloves are a must. The real problem is that most bee keepers gloves are made of leather type material and are big and bulky and do not take kindly to being washed. Unless you use washing up gloves that are large enough to go over your main bee keeping gloves your going to have difficulty maintaining good bio-secure hygiene standards. An alternative would be to have gloves for your own hives at home and a clean unused pair for when visiting other apiaries. Cleaning them could be simply to wipe an alcohol type sterile wipe cloth over the palms and fingers of the gloves before moving to the next hive.

After having given it some though I would suggest that vinyl or latex surgical gloves are definitely too thin to be of much use against bee stings unless you are simply disposing of an infected dead hive with no bees present. But if your visiting another location and are not intending to actually get involved with the handling of the bees there then gloves would not be needed unless you were likely to handle some of the inert components of a hive. That is when vinyl or latex gloves would be useful. Again it is down to the individual to decide on the level of protection they need and what they need to do to reduce or prevent cross contamination occurring.

A view of members at a local BBKA meeting being shown some samples of infected comb. Note the gloves and the aprons.

Unforeseen consequences

One thing to note here is that you may have perfectly clean and disease free bees at home but when you visit another site, that may not be as disease free as you imagine. So it is worth becoming familiar with the signs of disease in bees and their brood, especially the notifiable ones. Learning to identify what is an infection and what isn’t will save a lot of time and anguish later.

This may look infected but it isn’t. The colouration is simply wax capping on the comb.

A long walk to disaster or a short walk to happiness?

Footwear is also another vector for infections. This I know from my woodland research work. Spores of some of the most dangerous pathogens can be carried in the mud on your boots and still remain viable even after the mud has dried and fallen off. It only takes a bit of moisture and the right temperature to bring these pathogens back into action. Again it is the same with bees. On a recent apiary visit I noted the bees on the floor under a hive. Now to all intents and purposes they were simply the drones at this time of year and old bees that had died in the hive and had been removed by the colony. Normally the ants would collect the bodies but in this case there were substantial numbers still on the floor. Now if there had been any infection in the hive that caused these bees to die then simply by standing on them will potentially fix pathogens within the crushed bodies into the treads of your boots which can then be carried away……back into your car and then onto your own property at a later date. I am not suggesting that you will be walking across your own hive but what if you drop a glove into the footwell of your car or maybe the boots get thrown into the boot of the car with the rest of your bee keeping gear? Its not beyond the realms of imagination to see how diseases can be spread and all because we didn’t think about the way these things are spread or can be spread. After all the main reason these things exist is because they have adapted to the environment that they live in and that includes our environment.

What was, what is and what could be

I recently had chalk brood in my hive and this is one of those infections that they used to burn the hives and bees to get rid of. Yes that meant burning the lot. Live colonies with chalk brood were subjected to the flame to stop the spread of this fungal infection. Nowadays the problem is controlled by keeping the hive at the correct working temperature and avoiding opening the hive in cold weather among other things. Common sense really but its not as common as you would imagine.

Chalk brood is an incurable disease unless you totally destroy the entire hive. There are no really effective cures and any that are suggested are pretty vicious to the bees and that is not the way we want to go really. So the only other non destructive solution is to minimise all possible catalysts that allow chalk brood to flare up.

The spores of this infection are still viable for up to 4 years after the last outbreak and they can be carried by robber bees into other hives as well as spread across colonies by bees when they forage on the same flowers. But lets not forget that our own bees could well become robbers too. So in that case a clean colony could easily become infected.

These last two vectors may seem insurmountable and mentioning any possible measures would also seem pointless but lets look again at the two factors.

The first is robbers. I have had problems and so have a few others in our group. If as a result we have learned how best to deter robbers then we also reduce the risk of spreading pathogens and parasites across the realm. So prevention of robbing should be something everyone gets familiar with, even if they have never had it happen before. This summer was abysmal for nectar and pollen so robbing was abundant. If the next summer is half as bad it will still be bad for bees and the flowering species. That means robbing will be up again. If climate change is here to stay as I suspect then we had better get ready for the worst as robbing will become common and it will destroy colonies if they are left undefended by us. So this is one vector that through proactive measures the spread of pathogens can be reduced.

Biodiversity is everywhere and everything

Cross infection in the flowering domain. Well its a little bit difficult to stop bees doing what they do best but we should consider encouraging the planting of as many diverse flowering species as possible so that the diversity of diet will boost the bees natural immune system sufficiently to combat any minor infection picked up among the flowers.

And finally ‘Pay attention to detail’

The only other thing to do is be vigilant to what the bees are doing around the hive. This is a good way to identify possible health issues early by simply observing their behaviour. I have been reading ‘At the Hive Entrance’ by H. Storch. The link takes you to the full book.

It is one of those books that is a delight to read as it really does show exactly what is going on in and around the hive and why. Forewarned is forearmed as they say.

Hope that you find this article interesting, thought provoking and above all useful. I have tried to add a little humour but for the serious brigade just skip those bits. If it stimulates debate then that will be brilliant. Anyone with anything they wish to add even if it is only a comment or two then pile in and say your bit. I am always learning.

Many thanks to Paul for the photo from the BBKA meeting he attended some time in late summer. Also thanks to all for inspiration and a special thanks to Gareth for continuing to put up with my incessant questions.

Now people go read the book. (Linked above)


Kev C

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2 Responses to Bees and Biosecurity: Simple measures to control infections and keeping the bees happy.

  1. Paul says:

    An excellent post. I view myself as a virtuous and paranoid type, always wash my suit at a high temperature before and after visiting another apiary – but I never thought of Zoflora, or my boots being a vector.

    The way I’ve seen people using disposable gloves round hives is, they go *over* the normal gloves.


  2. itsonlyausername says:

    Thanks for the reply. The disposable gloves would have to be pretty large to fit over regular bee keepers leather gauntlets or any other large, thick glove suitable for preventing bee stings penetrating them. I use Showa Hillier 370 gloves which are quite thin and a pair of Showa Winter gardening gloves over the top for extra thickness. The two together still retain flexibility, although not perfect, and both pair are easy to keep clean. They can also be machine washed. The only down side is they are pricey. I only use them because I already had two pair of each for gardening.
    Kev C


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