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American foulbrood

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Title: American foulbrood  
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Subject: Beehive, AFB, Beekeeping, Swarming (honey bee), Paenibacillus, Infanticide (zoology), Beekeeping in New Zealand
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American foulbrood

Field test for American foulbrood

American foulbrood (AFB), caused by the spore- forming Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae (formerly classified as Bacillus larvae), is the most widespread and destructive of the bee brood diseases. Paenibacillus larvae is a rod-shaped bacterium, which is visible only under a high power microscope. Larvae up to 3 days old become infected by ingesting spores that are present in their food. Young larvae less than 24 hours old are most susceptible to infection. Spores germinate in the gut of the larva and the vegetative form of the bacteria begins to grow, taking its nourishment from the larva. Spores will not germinate in larvae over 3 days old. Infected larvae normally die after their cell is sealed. The vegetative form of the bacterium will die but not before it produces many millions of spores. Each dead larva may contain as many as 100 million spores. This disease only affects the bee larvae but is highly infectious and deadly to bee brood. Infected larvae darken and die.[1][2]


Until 1906 American foulbrood was not differentiated from European foulbrood, and the condition was generally referred to as foulbrood. Thereafter, the terms European and American were used to distinguish the diseases.[3] However the designations do not refer to the geographical distributions but to the areas where they were first investigated scientifically.[4] In 1907 it was demonstrated conclusively that a bacterium called Bacillus larvae was the cause of American foulbrood disease by fulfilling Koch's postulates.[5] The geographical origin of AFB is unknown, but it is found almost worldwide.[6][7]


Lab testing is necessary for definitive diagnosis, but a good field test is to touch a dead larva with a toothpick or twig. It will be sticky and "ropey" (drawn out). Foulbrood also has a characteristic odor, and experienced beekeepers with a good sense of smell can often detect the disease upon opening a hive. In the photo at right, some larvae are healthy while others are diseased. Capped cells with decomposing larvae are sunken, as can be seen at lower right. Some caps may be torn, as well. Compare with healthy brood. The most reliable disease diagnosis is done by sending in some possibly affected brood comb to a laboratory specialized in identifying honey bee diseases.[8]

Disease spread

When cleaning infected cells, bees distribute spores throughout the entire colony. Disease spreads rapidly throughout the hive as the bees, attempting to remove the spore-laden dead larvae, contaminate brood food. Nectar stored in contaminated cells will contain spores and soon the brood chamber becomes filled with contaminated honey. As this honey is moved up into the supers, the entire hive becomes contaminated with spores. When the colony becomes weak from AFB infection, robber bees may enter and take contaminated honey back to their hives thereby spreading the disease to other colonies and apiaries. Beekeepers also may spread disease by moving equipment (frames or supers) from contaminated hives to healthy ones.

American foulbrood spores are extremely resistant to desiccation and can remain viable for more than 40 years in honey and beekeeping equipment. Therefore honey from an unknown source should never be used as bee feed, and used beekeeping equipment should be assumed contaminated unless known to be otherwise.[9]

Beehives with American foul brood should be burned due to spores that remain viable for up to 40 years.


Antibiotics, in non-resistant strains of the pathogen, can prevent the vegetative state of the bacterium forming. Drug treatment to prevent the American foulbrood spores from successfully germinating and proliferating is possible using oxytetracycline hydrochloride (Terramycin).[10] Another drug treatment, tylosin tartrate, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2005.[11]

Chemical treatment is sometimes used prophylactically, but this is a source of considerable controversy because certain strains of the bacterium seem to be rapidly developing resistance.[12] In addition, hives that are contaminated with millions of American foulbrood spores have to be prophylactically treated indefinitely. Once the treatment is suspended the American foulbrood spores germinate successfully again leading to a disease outbreak.

Because of the persistence of the spores (which can survive up to 40 years), many State Apiary Inspectors require an AFB diseased hive to be burned completely. A less radical method of containing the spread of disease is burning the frames and comb and thoroughly flame scorching the interior of the hive body, bottom board and covers. Dipping the hive parts in hot paraffin wax or a 3% sodium hypochlorite solution (bleach) also renders the AFB spores innocuous.[13] It is also possible to sterilize an infected hive without damaging either the structure of the hive or the stores of honey and pollen it contains by sufficiently lengthy exposure to an atmosphere of ethylene oxide gas, as in a closed chamber, as hospitals do to sterilize equipment that cannot withstand steam sterilization.[14]

Brigham Young University is currently studying the use of phage therapy to treat American foulbrood.[15]


  1. ^ Foul brood disease of honey bees:recognition and control Central Science Laboratory National Bee Unit, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); United Kingdom (excellent publication with many pictures)
  2. ^ "Bees Disease: One Step Closer To A Cure." ScienceDaily 4 May 2008
  3. ^ Phillips (1906)
  4. ^ Shimanuki, Hachiro; Knox, David A. Diagnosis of Honey Bee Diseases USDA
  5. ^ White 1907
  6. ^ Matheson, 1993,1996
  7. ^ American Foulbrood disease A.M. Alippi Laboratorio de Fitopatologia, Facultad de Ciencias Agrarias y Forestales Universidad Nacional deL a Plata, Calle 60 y 118, C.C. 31, 1900 La Plata, Argentina
  8. ^ USDA Agricultural Research Service Submission of Samples for Diagnosis (2007)
  9. ^ American Foul Brood-Prevention and Control Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
  10. ^ Calderone, Nicholas Management of Honey Bee Brood Diseases (January 2001) Cornell University
  11. ^ USDA Agricultural Research Service New Antibiotic Approved for Treating Bacterial Honey Bee Disease
  12. ^ Powell, Gordon Cleaning up American Foulbrood Iowa Honey Producers Association, The Buzz Newsletter (Jan 2006)
  13. ^ Dobbelaere W, de Graaf DC, Reybroeck W, Desmedt E, Peeters JE, Jacobs FJ (August 2001). "Disinfection of wooden structures contaminated with Paenibacillus larvae subsp. larvae spores". J. Appl. Microbiol. 91 (2): 212–6. PMID 11473585. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2672.2001.01376.x. 
  14. ^ Robinson. "Gas Sterilization of Beekeeping Equipment Contaminated by the American Foulbrood Organism, Bacillus larvae". The Florida Entomologist. JSTOR 3493642. 
  15. ^ "Bee Killers: Using Phages Against Deadly Honeybee Diseases - YouTube". Retrieved 2014-11-29. 

External links

  • Learn to identify American foulbrood in 90 seconds YouTube video showing the 'Ropiness test' and scales.
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