22 Nov

AFB Threatens $300M Almond crop

AFB Threatens $300M Almond crop

The recent ABC News report of a beekeeper being fined $6000 for placing American Foul Brood infected beehives on last years Almond pollination should come as no surpise.  it begs the question - how exposed are our honeybees to disease on almonds?  The news article suggested that the incident was a major threat to Australia's $300m/year almond crop.  How significant is the risk of this new phenomenon to Australia's beekeepng industry where most of Australia's honeybee colonies come together at a single event.

Almond pollination creates the perfect storm for the spread of diseases like AFB. Firstly, the floral resources are over subscribed with the millions of honeybees present resulting in a situation where weak colonies will be targeted by strong and healthy colonies. Secondly, the almond dollars attracts all types of beekeepers from the highly professional to the very lax with the latter almost certainly bringing diseased colonies. Thirdly, aside from the almond floral, these almond groves are a desert for honeybees because any and every plant that is not an almond tree is swiftly sprayed and eradicated - leaving the honeybees with a diet of almonds, almonds and almonds.

All this said, most professional beekeepers understand the risks when placing their honeybees on the almonds and in close proximity of thousands of other not so clean beehives. The good beekeepers will indeed have a disease management plan in place that involves ongoing vigilance, early diagnosis and a zero tolerance approach to any cases found. The biggest cost associated with dealing with instances of AFB is lost production. The unfortunate fact is that it will typically be the best colonies that will overpower nearby AFB infected and therefore weakened colonies and bring the disease home with the spoils of war.  Gut wrenching for the beekeeper, these once strong and healthy colonies must be sacrificed immediately for the benefit of the rest. But this is where the less than vigilant beekeepers get into trouble. By the time they realise they have a problem, the disease has spread through their entire operation. When they visit almonds with their highly contagious colonies they expose Australia's beekeeping industry (because most of Australia's beekeepers are there) to infection.

Here is some basic steps to a disease management strategy:

  1. Conduct a full health inspection of every brood chamber at least once/year.
  2. Be vigilant to the beehive that is looking dull compared to its neighbours. Inspect the brood for problems and take immediate action if found to be infected
  3. Shutdown and quarantine infected beehives immediately - This means fumigating the honeybees and sealing up the beehive.
  4. Have all infected beehives gamma radiated before establishing any new colonies in them.
  5. Early diagnosis is critical because AFB will weaken the colony making it vulnerable to robbing bees from strong colonies and therefore spreading the disease.
  6. Ensure your colonies have good honey stores onboard when they arrive at the almonds so they are not tempted to mischievously rob from the weak.

A simple disease management strategy will ensure you are one step ahead of any potential wide spread disease outbreak. If you are an almond pollinator, your risk profile automatically escalates from moderate to extremely high and a vigilant disease management regime is in fact mission critical to the survival of your operation and your business.