American Foulbrood Researchers – The Few, The Committed

If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know that I’ve had run-ins with American Foulbrood (AFB) for two years in a row.

Honeybees at Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey, Maple FAlls, WA

Brookfield Farm Bees at Top Entrance

I run naturally treated, antibiotic-free hives, in which I eliminate with the elimination of all comb over 5 years old, and old brood comb over 3 years old.  But AFB still appears – once it’s in an apiary, it is hard to get out, short of removing all drawn comb.   The spores can live 40 years.  I got fed up last year and removed all unoccupied brood comb, regardless of age (it is painful to destroy comb that has only been drawn out for a few months, believe me).


Time For A Natural Change?

When AFB hit the only solution was to do what has been done for over a century: kill the bees in those hives, burn all frames, and scorch the rest of the gear.  In both years AFB turned up in the fall, so shaking the bees onto undrawn foundation was not an option: there’s nothing with which the bees can drawn comb from October to April.

All that killing and burning – techniques that inspired me to go on a world-wide search for research being done on ways to fight and hopefully kill the AFB spores without destroying the hive.

Technology Schematic 1916

Technology 1916 (wikipedia commons)

A century has passed since American Foulbrood was identified as a unique honeybee disease.  In that time we went from the first AM radio transmissions to ships at sea to smartphones; and from speculation about the existance of vitamins in food to mapping DNA.

I figured there must be someone in the world working on finding a natural way to fight these tough bacteria with 21st century methods.

The Dedicated Few

Happily I found two groups.  Yes, two. That’s all, but they are there.  This makes me:

  • Pleased : that these folks are working on fighting American Foulbrood with natural substances.
  • Shocked : that there’s only two groups that I could locate

Las Vegas : Home of US American Foulbrood Microbiology Research

University of Las Vegas, Nevada Sign

University of Las Vegas, Nevada

OK, AFB is not what I think of right away when I think of Vegas – my mental image strays more towards Hunter S. Thompsons’ “Fear and Loathing“.  But environmental microbiology student Diane Yost and microbiologist Professor Penny Amy are undertaking AFB research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.




Working under a grant from the US Department of Agriculture, Yost and Amy are looking at the potential of fighting the AFB bacteria (Paenibacillus larvae) with bacteriophages.  A bacteriophage is a parasitic virus that infects bacteria then reproduces inside of it, killing the bacteria.  (I love these little phages) This “virus kills bacteria” concept is being tested on other bacteria which have become resistant to antibiotics.


Yost and Amy began by testing over 100 differnet types of samples from dirt and flowers to beeswax to lip balm, looking for beeswax with AFB and bacteriophages.

  • They found 31 phages.
  • They tested those on 8 strains of American Foulbrood bacteria
  • 3 naturally occuring bacteriophages showed promise against all 8 AFB strains.
  • If further research shows them to be able to infect and kill AFB bacteria, that would be the first step in the search for a natural treatment for American Foul Brood.

Yes, all the above just gets to the first step.  The work is quite complicated and challenging

  1. Yost and Amy are attempting to locate molecules that would cause AFB spores to germinate at the wrong times, which would then lay the spores opens to attack by enzymes that would tear apart the bacterias’ cell walls.  Those enzymes would be produced by the bacteriopages.
  2. Step two would be to isolate and use natural compounds and amino acids found in adult bees  to protect the honeybee larva.

The goal, writes Yost, is to create “treatments that can protect bees as well as remove the infectious spores from the hive without the risk of resistance posed by current antibiotic treatments or contamination of the hive and its products.”

You can read more about theire work in a paper they preesnted last year at the General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

York, U.K. :

Food And Environmental REsearch Agency, York UK logo


At the Fera National Bee Unit and the University of York, researchers are looking at ways of controling AFB by looking at how the disease spreads.  “the underlying philosophy is to understand how outbreaks spread. The idea is that better advice to apiarists should result in fewer outbreaks, and colony destruction becomes the last resort treatment,” explains Professor Thorunn Helgason.

Part of their research focuses on the genetic diversity of AFB bacteria found in Europe and how that diversity affects the spread of the disease.  One graduate student at the University has designed a genetic marker system that will allow researchers to more easily differentiate and follow strains of AFB.

German AFB Research in 2008

I did find references to American Foulbrood research being done five years ago by Professor Elke Genersch, a microbiologist working in Berlin.  Professor Genersch and collegues discovered that the AFB bacteria replicate in the midgut of the bee larvae, where they live off the food eaten by the bee larvae. The bacteria increase in number until they completely fill the gut.  Then they explode out of the gut, expand though the cavity that contain all the larvas organs.  This kills the larva.  The resulting goo is ridden with bacteria spores.

This work is part of the basis on which todays work is being done.  I tried to contact Professor Genersch, to discover what work has subsequently been done, but I failed to connect.


Scientific research takes a long time.  Results have to be examined and replicated.  So although a natural treatement for American Foulbrood is probably not just around the corner, it is good to know that some people are working on alternatives to killing bees and burning equipment or to the continuous development of new antibiotics to which the bacteria soon become resistant.


We are now on what I think is the fourth antibiotic used against AFB in the United States.  Many countries have banned the use of antibiotics in beehives.

  • Antibiotics stay in the hive, with the bees, their pollen, and their honey.
  • Antibiotics do NOT kill the AFB spores.
    If continuous antibiotic use stops on a hive, AFB will florish and kill the hive
  • Antibiotics only serve to allow infected bee larva to survive.
  • Antibiotic treated hives are potentially filled with viable AFB spores.
    These spores can be passed on to other hives through drone visits and robber bees.
    These spores, on reaching another hive, will replicate and kill that hive.

Hope For the Future

Honeybee with lots of pollen : Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

Happy Honeybee

There is hope that one day there will be a natural treatement to combat American Foul Brood.  It won’t be tomorrow or the next day, and it will take a lot of dedicated scientific study to find that treatment.  I, for one, am very greatful to the researchers who undertake this work.  Their work could one day bring an end to a disease that has threatened honeybees for over a century.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, Washington.  We’ve had a few nice days where the bees flew, and lots of rainy, overcast days where they stayed in.  I’m hoping for a good spring – with the Big Leaf Maples coming into bloom in about one month.  In the meantime, it’s just good to see the girls fly in our brief moments of sun.

About brookfieldfarmhoney

Brookfield Farm, a small off-grid apiary in Maple Falls, WA focuses on the beauty and bounties of Washington’s wilderness. I sell honey from our bees, whose naturally-treated, antibiotic-free hives are home to bees who fly Washington’s mountains and farmlands. Herbal salves and lip balms from Brookfield beeswax. Delicately infused honeys and vinegars. Varietal honeys from independent Washington beekeepers. Karen Edmundson Bean: beekeeper, photographer. Her love of the wilderness inspires her to discover new ways of bringing the wonders of nature to others. Brookfield Farm : the tastes, textures, sounds, and images of nature.
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14 Responses to American Foulbrood Researchers – The Few, The Committed

  1. Michelle says:

    Thanks for all the info! I enjoyed it and will be offering support for the research being done . It is so valuable.

  2. Emily Heath says:

    Interesting post. I wonder what makes some areas more likely to have an outbreak than others. From what I’ve read, having lots of hives locally would be a risk factor. AFB is a much feared but fairly rare disease in the UK. My hive partner and I try to change our brood comb every year all in one go to protect against spores building up. It’s easy to afford to do that as hobby beekeepers with only a couple of hives, but I can see that when you have lots of hives it would be a big undertaking.

    • Yes, it’s a bit agonizing when I remove comb from the hives that looks perfectly good. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? It looks good, but the longer it’s in the hive the chance of infection rises. AFB can come from anywhere – from other hives to bee trees. I think what makes the higher probability here in the US is the overwhelming use of Antibiotics in hives once or twice a year! This, of course, creates carriers out of those hives. So, we have a lot of hives in the US with AFB and EFB. It can make it difficult to be a beekeeper who goes down the naturally treated, antibiotic-free route (like me) or the folks who go without any treatments at all. I’m just glad that there are two groups working on AFB – Way to Go Las Vegas!

      • Emily Heath says:

        Using those antibiotics is illegal here in the UK. Only a bee inspector can authorise their use if a colony has EFB; all hives with AFB must be automatically destroyed. Would be great if an alternative treatment could be developed.

  3. Louie says:

    Wonderful, what a web site it is! This weblog gives valuable
    facts to us, keep it up.

    • Thank you Louie – I’m really interested in the AFB research for obvious reasons, but I really hope they can make the phages work for beekeepers – then maybe we’ll get rid of the antibiotics in the hives.

  4. Mardi says:

    I ran across this article in my search on line. Have you heard of this treatment? Any success with it yourself?

      • I finally got a chance to read the article – facinating. I think I will add a little cinnamon oil to the bees fall essential oil mix – first I’ve got to do the math to figure how much…Thanks again

    • Hi Mardi – OOPS – your other email was above this one and I was working bottom up — I’ve not read about the Cinnamon – I’ll take a look tomorrow after I get out of the bee yards – thanks for sending the PDF link. My answer was about the ULV researchers: it’s just in the testing stage – at the moment the researchers from ULV are doing both in lab tests and field tests with phages. Let’s hope the tests show positive results.

  5. Nick says:

    Interesting about the cinnamon. I was talking to a commercial beekeeper about treating chalk brood. He sprinkles half a cup of ground cinnamon over the brood nest.
    I wonder if that is enough to treat the AFB as well… that pdf was a bit over my head. Sprinkling cinnamon is something I am capable of haha

    • I know the feeling, sometimes reading the research papers is like translating from another language. I would doubt that sprinkled cinnamon would treat AFB. But I would think that adding it to the essential oil patty when the bees are healty might give the girls a boost – but how much, that’s always the question, eh? The nice thing about sprinkling cinnamon is that if it doesn’t help in health, it certainly keeps the ants away.

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