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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Managing the AFB Risk in Second-hand Gear

As New Zealand’s registered beehives reduce from a peak of nearly one million to closer to half of that number, a lot of the beekeeping equipment which remains in the sheds changes hands. With this in mind, we check in with the American Foulbrood (AFB) Management Agency to determine the level of risk associated with trading in second-hand beekeeping equipment that might hold AFB spores, and what can be done to mitigate the spread.

Dwayne Hill, AP1 for the AFB Management Agency stresses the importance of doing your due diligence before buying second hand beekeeping equipment.

There is always a risk associated with trading in second had beekeeping equipment and beekeepers should do their due diligence before taking ownerships, that’s the message from the Agency’s national operations managers Dwayne Hill and Marco Gonzalez.

There has always been a “steady flow” of beehives and associated equipment being traded, but in recent years – with beekeeping proving far less economical for many – that flow has become a flood.

“Concern does go up as more gear floods the market. Not all of that gear is owned by beekeepers that have a great AFB history, or we know anything about,” Hill says.

“Experienced beekeepers buying such equipment can manage that risk, but the worry is with new beekeepers, do they actually know what they are buying?”

Whether beekeepers taking on used equipment are experienced, new to the industry, have one hive or 10,000, there are some best practices which should be undertaken.

Treat all used equipment as having AFB

Just because a beekeeper says they have a clean AFB history, or that the hives or equipment they are trading are ‘AFB Free’, doesn’t make it fact. It is illegal to sell equipment known to be contaminated, and often trading platforms – such as Facebook groups – require sellers to declare its status. Whether sellers genuinely believe their declaration no doubt differs case-by-case, but, either way, the Agency advises a “buyer beware” mentality.

Any beekeepers who buy or inherit used equipment and spread it through their operation indiscriminately are playing with fire – potentially literally.

“When you buy second hand gear you must assume it is contaminated and use quarantine measures, such as only introducing it to a few selected apiaries and tracking their performance,” Gonzalez says, having seen the alternative go badly wrong.

“I know a beekeeper who got AFB through 30 percent of his operation just by putting second-hand supers right through his apiaries. If he used a couple of apiaries only then his problems would have been a lot less.”

Do your due diligence

Buying beekeeping equipment should be treated like buying a second-hand car Hill says, “do your due diligence”. A big part of that diligence is physically inspecting the equipment prior to taking ownership.

“Don’t just buy off Facebook because it says it is AFB free. Go and have a look. Take somebody with you who has more experience. A DECA holder, if you are not one,” Hill says, while also advising new beekeepers to stay away from second-hand equipment altogether.

A useful tool as part of the due diligence process is the Foster swab testing as offered by dnature Diagnostics and Research.

“It can take a minute to swab and very little cost to get that tested. If you are buying thousands of dollars’ worth of gear, that swab testing money will be best spent finding out whether there are AFB spores present. If you find AFB at that point you can tell the Agency and take the risk away from everyone else,” Hill says.

Recommendations of what to swab, and how many swabs to use, differs depending on the type and amount of equipment being assessed and so dnature technical manager John Mackay advises those looking to take on second-hand equipment to make contact with them to come up with a plan.

“We are well aware that there are cost pressures in beekeeping at the moment, but we can run composite Foster tests which make diagnosing large amounts of equipment more cost effective. We just need to plan it out with the beekeeper,” Mackay says.

Hill says he has been dealing with a case where AFB has been detected in hives that were recently purchased and now the thousands of boxes that came with them are also being destroyed.

“Only upon first inspection of hives, post buying them, was the AFB noticed, then when the rest of the gear was inspected obvious signs of AFB were found. It was a lack of diligence on both parties’ part, but as a buyer it is your responsibility and they could have spent a day going through the gear in the shed prior to purchase and avoided some of the cases of AFB they now have.”

Once you have the gear

Once a beekeeper has done their due diligence and decided equipment is safe to take ownership of, and come up with a quarantine plan, there is still more they can do to reduce their risk of inheriting AFB spores.

“If you have the use of a paraffin dipper, then use that to sterilise wooden equipment, even if you do have negative swab results. The sterilisation process works, if done correctly. That is, at least 10 minutes at 160°c plus,” Hill advises.

Even painted boxes can be put through the dipper. It will strip paint, but they can be repainted while warm. Bases, wood-rim excluders, mats or any other piece of wooden beekeeping equipment will benefit from this process.

The pieces of equipment most likely to carry spores are bases, followed by frames.

“All the AFB-decaying material fall onto the base as the bees attempt to remove it from their hive, then they are walking all over it. Even pallets that have had AFB hives on them can transfer AFB, so cannot be reused,” Gonzalez says.

Marco Gonzalez, AP1 for the AFB Management Agency advises beekeepers to “buy local” when it comes to used beekeeping equipment, if possible.

As for frames, Hill has some advice there.

“Frames are a high-risk item, that is where the honey is stored, brood laid, and therefore the spores are predominant there. So, buying boxes and frames and destroying the frames and repopulating the boxes with your own frames, or new frames, will definitely minimise that risk. Even if you didn’t dip the boxes, the disease risk is going to be substantially reduced by removing the frames of another beekeeper.”

The plastic problem

In the past bleach has been floated as a remedy to AFB infected plastic equipment, but this is too unreliable and such equipment must be destroyed.

“Bleaching has so many variables and can easily become unsuccessful in removing AFB spores,” Gonzales explains.

“Variables include: the age of the solution, the exact concentration of the solution, protection from sunlight, pH level of the water, the level of cleaning achieved on the plastic material prior to bleaching, the period of time the bleach makes contact with the plastic. It is just a lot of variables.”

Once again, the Agency have seen it go horribly wrong for people who think they can flout these rules.

“In 2019 there was a huge AFB outbreak in Wairarapa and that particular beekeeper was attempting to bleach-treat plastic frames from AFB infected hives. He created one of the largest AFB outbreaks we have come across. Plastic frames and bases have so many crevasses, you can never clean into all the areas which the bees will reach,” Gonzalez says.

Buy local

With an abundance of second-hand equipment available, the Agency is advising beekeepers not to go further afield than needed. There are numerous reasons for this.

Southland has seen AFB brought into the region from Northland recently, frustrating Agency efforts towards elimination.

“We would rather deal with AFB outbreaks locally. Southland is one of the regions with low AFB levels, and Northland one of the highest. So transporting gear between regions like that doesn’t makes sense, for a number of reasons,” Gonzalez says.

Holding vendors of second-hand equipment accountable, if it does prove to be contaminated, is much easier when the dealings are all local too, as is the Agency’s investigations, Hill explains.

“When you find AFB in the second-hand gear it is a lot easier to then go to those areas using the same AP2, the same people involved, to look for the same AFB. There seems to be a lot more understanding from the beekeepers when that happens. Whereas, if you have hives or gear from across the country and different parties involved, there is a disjointedness to the investigation.”

For more advice around AFB best practices, or to advise of abandoned apiaries or equipment, contact the AFB PMP Agency.


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