Bees are of the most vital and dominant insect pollinators. Unlike most other insects it is more prone to establish a one-to-one pollination system. A one and done system is risky, but it guarantees that all of the needed pollen is safely placed where it will be most effective. Honeybees pollinate about a third of the United States’ crops and American foulbrood is currently jeopardizing a large fraction of our country’s food.
American foulbrood is a disease caused by a bacterium and is detrimental to bees. Unless the signs are spotted early on, the disease spreads and an entire hive loses its colony to foulbrood. A single healthy hive may hold anywhere between 20,000 to 60,000 bees depending on the season, and thus American foulbrood will kill tens of thousands of insect pollinators, essential to our environment, in just one hive. The bees are in need of saving, and we are one pup closer to a solution.
Cybil Preston, the chief apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture began training her Labrador retriever, Mack, to sniff out foulbrood. He can simply walk by, sniff at the honeycomb and he is able to detect if any of the disease’s bacteria have killed off any larvae.
Since inspectors and beekeepers can’t always see warning signs of foulbrood disease until it’s too late, the doggy detectives make up for what their human counterparts lack.
Mack does not need to open up a hive, unlike his human colleagues, to check for signs of foulbrood. In the winter, bees cluster and it is difficult to inspect the cone visually. Last fall and winter, it was Mack’s time to shine. Mack inspected and sniffed out about 1,700 colonies. Without his help, Preston would not be able to keep up with shipping hives to needed warmer climates in the winter. With a sense of smell 10,000 more times sensitive than humans, dogs can detect even the faintest scent of the disease at extremely low levels.
This is imperative because the sooner, the better when it comes to treating the combs. If there are foulbrood spores in a comb, they are likely to stay there for a hundred years. The deadly disease becomes a domino effect.
If one hive loses its colony to foulbrood disease, the now empty hive is left sitting around where neighboring bees will quickly move in, take its resources, and unknowingly carry back with them the deadly, “spore-laden honey” to feed their own larvae. The sooner the signs are spotted in one comb, the faster inspectors and beekeepers can prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of pollinators.
The federal farm bill has recently awarded Preston with a grant to further and expand her canine detection program, in efforts to implement the model with dogs in other states as well. Mack has some new company himself as Preston recently adopted a young springer spaniel, Tukka, and is in the early stages of training her on the scent of foulbrood.
In the process of training her doggy detectives, she builds up their confidence and trust through a slow but steady progression of identifying the scent.
First, she introduces Tukka to a toy bunny with the scent of foulbrood. She will soon put foulbrood inside a new small rubber toy, throwing it in unexpected directions training her to retrieve it by sniffing it out. Eventually, once her initial training is complete Tukka, like Mack, will be able to find the smallest traces of the scent and communicate so by pointing towards the scent with her nose, followed by her sitting down.
Soon many more dogs like Mack and Tukka will be able to sniff out early signs of American foulbrood disease, and prevent outbreaks saving tens of thousands of our precious insect pollinators per hive. These doggy detectives, and their fellow pups in training are working hard, and sniffing out a solution towards saving the bees, our precious pollinators.