Researchers find key to deadly bee disease

A key discovery by researchers at the Free University of Berlin may help beekeepers treat a deadly bee infection.

Researchers find key to deadly bee disease
A beekeeper in Frankfurt (Oder) in April. Photo: DPA

Bacteria of American foulbrood, a widespread disease capable of wiping out entire bee colonies, is held in the digestive tract of bee larvae for several days before it explodes through the wall of the digestive tract and kills the larvae, researchers from the Berlin university and the Bee Research Institute Hohen Neuendorf announced on Tuesday.

“Because of this we have a window of time” to treat the disease, Dr. Elke Genersch, one of the senior authors of the study, told The Local.

Scientists had believed that the bacteria broke out of the digestive tract immediately to multiply in the tissues of the infected larva. Without an effective therapy, infected hives often had to be destroyed.

The disease is not the same as colony collapse disorder, a little-understood phenomenon that made headlines around the world in 2006 and last year when worker bees were reported to be mysteriously flying away from their colonies.

American foulbrood is common in hives throughout the world, Genersch said. Unlike in the United States, China and South America, Genersch said beekeepers in Europe are not allowed to use antibiotics to combat the disease.

Genersch said the Berlin discovery will give scientists a basis for research into a treatment that European scientists can use as well.

Major outbreaks of the disease are cyclical, she said. The last major outbreak in Germany – with an average of 30 percent infection rates – was in 2002 to 2003. Beekeepers saw a slightly less severe outbreak last winter.

Though American foulbrood does not infect humans, its impact spreads far beyond the honey on the supermarket shelf.

“The added economic value of bee pollination is in the billions,” Genersch said. “Honey is just a byproduct.”