“Complacency” is the biggest challenge facing beekeepers in their mission to eliminate American foulbrood (AFB) from managed colonies in New Zealand, warns Clifton King as he leaves his role at the head of the National AFB Pest Management Plan. The departing national compliance manager reflects on five and a half years at the head of the Management Agency and the AFB challenges that lie ahead for beekeepers.
“We need to change our focus,” King says, with the benefit of having lead delivery of the AFB PMP since November 2017, until stepping away from the role following completion of the Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) national conference last month.
“By ‘we’, I mean the Management Agency and beekeepers, not just beekeepers by themselves. We are too focused on the presence, or absence, of AFB and there's not enough focus on the implementation of good elimination practices and, in particular, the implementation of good AFB elimination practices by DECA (Disease Elimination Conformity Agreement) holders.”
King took over the national compliance manager role from Rex Baynes and an early change was moving the Agency’s focus from trying to identify hives with AFB, to identifying beekeepers who were not implementing their DECAs completely. Complacency around DECAs is the biggest barrier to achieving AFB elimination the departing manager believes, as DECA holders account for the vast majority of registered beehives in New Zealand.
“One thing I realized, just recently, is we put out a reasonable amount of communications about AFB, but there's a real risk that, as 90% of beekeepers either don't have, or don't believe they have, AFB, they think ‘this doesn't apply to me’ and they stop hearing our message,” King says.
And the main message that needs to get through to beekeepers? Hive inspections are still, by far, the best tool we have to identify and remove AFB from colonies, no matter what the beekeeper’s history with the disease is.
“For those who cut corners and don't do regular inspections, AFB is pretty good at finding a proportion of those beekeepers every year. Because they aren't taking precautions to protect the beehives by simply inspecting them regularly, they suddenly discover that it's not one or two cases of AFB which they've got, but five, 10 or 20. So, I think that's the greatest challenge, complacency from those that don't have or haven't had AFB in some time, who believe ‘job's done for me, nothing more to do’.”
King points to the success of the Agency, during his time, in reducing the incidence of AFB in high-risk operations where, by carrying out twice yearly inspections on hives, they have reduced infections by 90% each year.
“A beekeeper should be able to eliminate AFB from their beehives within three years and 95% of colonies are owned by beekeepers that are DECA holders. Therefore, we should be able to make fairly quick and dramatic improvements into elimination if all DECA holders implement them as they agree,” King says.
During his time at the Agency AFB incidence was relatively stable in terms of percentage of the overall hive numbers in New Zealand, at 0.32% between 2018 and 2021, until a spike to 0.46% in 2022. The Agency put this down to the economics of the industry as hives changed hands and more vigilant beekeepers reported the disease.
Among the major changes at the Agency in King’s tenure has been the implementation of the new online database HiveHub as a replacement for ApiWeb, plus an increase in the scope of the Agency with more beekeeper levy payer funding allowing more hive inspections by the Agency’s AP2 inspectors and greater honey sample testing, as well as the completion of three rounds of consultation with beekeepers to amend the National PMP Order across 2021 and 2022.
He counts the 2021 ApiNZ conference in Rotorua as the biggest highlight of his time at the Agency, with King saying there was a stream of beekeepers congratulating the Agency on their efforts to bring the coordination of AP2 inspections inhouse, as well as roll out HiveHub. A close second, in terms of highlights, was the ability to get out on the road as part of the consultation on the long term PMP Order and meet with beekeepers all over New Zealand.
As for challenges? Well, that’s easy the departing national compliance manager says. His successor is going to have to try to continue to balance a lack of funding with a wide range of opportunities the Agency has presented to them to try to assist beekeepers in achieving AFB elimination – all which come with a price tag.
“Choices need to be made about what are the best things to spend levy payers’ money on. This inevitably means that many good things are not progressed. Beekeepers don't have unanimous agreement with each other on what are the best things. So, while you're progressing initiatives and best interests of AFB elimination and the beekeeping industry as a whole, you also have to deal with criticism from those that believe you're doing the wrong things or thing, or there are better things to do. That’s a challenge that's always going to be there. There's never going to be enough funding to do everything and so choices have to be made as to what will deliver the greatest AFB elimination benefits.”
While he might be moving into a role with OSPRI, as head of their NAIT programme to help track livestock movements in New Zealand, King says he will keep an eye on the AFB PMP annual reports where he hopes AFB rates will diminish. On that note, he wants to leave the industry with a positive thought.
“Looking to the future, I want beekeepers to know they can make a dramatic difference,” he says, adding, “but it does require the 5000 beekeepers that have a DECA to take it out, remind themselves what they agreed to do in it, and do it.”