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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Passing the Sniff Test

With their three-year-long research project into the ability of dogs to detect American foulbrood (AFB) spore odours nearing completion, the dog trainer, veterinarian scientist and beekeeper behind the work are confident they have proven the concept. Now though, there is frustration at what they see as hesitancy from within the AFB Pest Management Agency to take their conceptual discoveries to the next level and test their findings in an operational setting. Manawatu beekeeper Jason Prior, from Downunder Honey, and dog trainer Pete Gifford, say beekeepers could see the opportunity to develop a highly-valuable tool in the struggle towards AFB eradication pass by if those in a position to gain the most from it don’t step up.

While attitudes towards advancing the research into, and role of, “AFB sniffer dogs” is varied across apiculture, those who have been privy to the early findings of the Foulbrood Detection project seem unanimously encouraged.

American foulbrood detection dog “Lily” of K9 Search MD successfully indicates on a spore sample during a trial run by Massey University.

“The result of the dogs indicating on the correct sample every time was quite amazing,” says Dr Neroli Thomson, the Massey University vet scientist who ran the project.

Gifford, who trained two dogs through his business K9 Search Medical Detention just outside Palmerston North to successfully identify AFB spores on all 12 occasions in the final trial, is confident too.

“We've proved the concept, there's no doubt we've proven it,” he says.

The Management Agency National AFB Pest Management Plan fronts New Zealand’s efforts to eradicate the highly infectious bacterial disease that kills bees prior to emergence from their cells. National Compliance manager Clifton King calls the findings “a really important bit of science”.

The chief executive of beekeeping’s largest industry body, Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ), is encouraged too.

Massey University vet Scientist Dr Neroli Thomson ran the Foulbrood Detection trial and plans to have the findings published.

“Neroli and Pete have undertaken a good piece of research on a tight budget,” Karin Kos says.

“That dogs can pick up the odour of AFB from the spores is a good start, but the trouble is, it is just a good start.”

And that’s a growing concern. Despite the positivity at the findings, building on that good start could prove to be difficult. Prior and Gifford, who made the initial research happen, say they are growing tired of their efforts being “stonewalled” by the Agency. Even getting the research to this stage has been a struggle they say, and now is the time for those who could benefit most from the use of AFB sniffer dogs to come onboard.

How we Got Here

Gifford, having spent several decades training drug, bomb and people detection dogs before founding the K9 Search MD facility, chanced upon a conversation regarding AFB detection. His interest piqued, he approached his neighbour, Prior, who agreed to sponsor it on behalf of industry.

Going into the project, Gifford says he had no desire to prove dogs could detect AFB spores, but simply was interested in coming to a conclusion either way. That stance has not changed.

Pete Gifford has successfully trained two dogs to detect AFB spores and would now like to advance research to an operational setting.

"We really just wanted to identify if the odour was available, if dogs could find it consistently, and how big was the scent picture for them to find?” Gifford says.

Dogs have been used by beekeepers to aid in the detection of AFB for some time, but there has been little to no published research to back up their function. That has previously been, and still is, a sticking point with the Management Agency, who have not used canines in AFB detection.

“The Management Agency is required to use tools and make decisions based on scientific evidence. Dogs are in the position of having potential, but the evidence isn’t there,” King says.

Prior and Gifford therefore took on the task of trying to develop that evidence.

The Three-Year Project

The project started in 2019, and brought on board Massey University’s vet science team through Thomson. The first 18 months was spent gaining funding and regulatory approval for the use of AFB spores, which due to their biosecurity classification cannot be grown without special dispensation.

The group managed to collate $45,000 in funding, largely from the Massey University Working Dog Centre and the Honey Industry Trust, but was also supported by the Southern North Island Beekeeping Group as well as in-kind contributions. That was paired with $35,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) Sustainable Food and Fiber Futures (SFFF) fund.

Once regulatory approval was gained, work in earnest could start. That saw Plant and Food Research, led by Michelle Taylor, begin producing Paenibacillus larvae (AFB) spores. Twelve samples of spores were produced, as well as 12 control samples that were identical in every way – except without the P larvae spores.

The AFB samples were then sent to Gifford, who spent five weeks training his Labrador-cross and heading dog-cross canines to detect the odours. Then came the day of truth, where two top performing dogs in training were put to an independent test under strict conditions, run by Thomson and Massey University. That involved a carousel holding eight scent samples, seven of which were the controls with no AFB present, and only one with AFB.

The result was the perfect six out of six successful indications by both dogs – 12 out of 12 total – suggesting that the dogs could indeed recognise an odour from P larvae spore samples.

AFB detection dog "Lily" at work in the Massey University trial.

“For each dog, the probability of this result occurring by chance alone is very small, less than 0.1 percent,” Thomson explains.

“The result of the dogs indicating on the correct sample every time was quite amazing and a testament to Pete’s skill as a dog trainer.”

AFB Management Agency national compliance manager Clifton King.

What’s in a Smell?

While the project has been thorough in creation of the samples and both training and testing of the dogs, this is for good reason. Ensuring that it is AFB spores that the dogs are indicating on and nothing else, is crucial to the findings being respected and ultimately published.

“What Neroli and Pete have done here is demonstrate conclusively that the dogs are picking up on the AFB spores and nothing else. From a scientific perspective, that is a really exciting conclusion,” King says.

That is because the use of dogs in detecting AFB has been clouded by the question of whether they are indicating on AFB itself, or just unhealthy hives.

“If you cannot produce a sterile target odour to present to the dog, then the dog can’t give you the right answer because you can't ask the right question," Gifford says.

By presenting the AFB spore odour to the dogs, alongside the controls that were guaranteed not to have AFB, then the correct question was being asked of the animals. And they answered correctly too.

“But what we don't know is would they actually be useful in an operational setting,” Thomson explains.

“We don't know what level of spore they can smell. We don't know how reliable they are. We don't know if they could smell the paenibacillus larvae spores compared to a different form of environmental bacteria. So, there's still a lot more work that needs to be done to work out if the dogs will be useful in eliminating AFB from an apiary. We don't know that yet.”

In a hive in the field, or even in a shed full of honey supers, there could be plenty of secondary odours and thus the research now needs to move to an operational setting.

An Impasse

Encouraged by their findings, Thomson, Prior and Gifford are all hoping the second research project in an operational setting can get off the ground. It will come with a much higher cost though, likely in the realm of $200,000 - $250,000 Gifford estimates.

Beekeeper Jason Prior, owner of Downunder Honey, and Karin Kos, Apiculture New Zealand chief executive.

If the industry is going to make that sort of investment to developing a new tool for AFB detection, it is time the Management Agency steps up and shows more support than they have to date, Prior and Gifford believe.

“The project has run its course and reached an outcome which should allow the Agency to make a decision to take it forward,” Prior says.

“What I’m getting is nothing though. I haven’t got much support from the start and the only encouragement has come from industry.”

Neither the AFB Pest Management Board, who make strategic decisions, and King, who oversees day-to-day implementation of the National Pest Management Plan are backing the research into sniffer dogs to a satisfactory level, Prior says.

King, despite his enthusiasm for the initial project, says the Agency must wait for it to be peer reviewed and published before there is “assurance of quality of work and that conclusions are valid”.

Thomson is in the process of finalising findings and will then submit the project for peer review and publishing. She expects it could take up to another 12 months before anything is published. The Agency will not fully recognise the findings until that point King says, reinforcing the importance of the peer review process in identifying truly reliable findings.

For Prior and Gifford, two business owners in their own right, this type of apathy and reluctance to fully back their project is frustrating, as they believe the Agency has the most to gain from successful development of new tools in the AFB kit.

“The Agency could take the initiative because they have the ability to go to industry and say, ‘we've done this work with dogs, they look really promising, do you want to use levy money to take it forward?’ They could do that tomorrow,” Prior says.

“It’s just not feasible to fund people based inspection of anywhere near the level of hives required to eradicate AFB. We need some new approaches if we are to seriously attempt to meet the (National Pest Management) Plan’s objectives.”

At ApiNZ, Kos agrees that the Agency’s backing will be crucial.

“If it is to go forward, it needs the backing of the Agency. That makes total sense. It has been a really good piece of research, but it is a big job to advance it now and it is a question of where that sits amongst the AFB Agency’s priorities,” she says.

While King says the Agency is keen to support further research, that is more likely to be in the form of helping gain regulatory approval, as opposed to stumping up any money.

“It would be expensive work and the Agency is not in a position to put large amounts of levy payer funding into such research, but we are in a position where we are willing and able to support research applications to funding providers to progress it,” King says.

Decisions, by the Agency, to spend money should not be made on a project-by-project basis, but instead a more strategic approach is required, King says.

“A strategic approach would require the Management Agency to replicate what funding agencies already have for the AFB space. That is, we should quantify the range of AFB research needs, establish our strategic goals and have clear and transparent methods for assessing and prioritising research proposals so that we can demonstrate to levy payers that the Management Agency has funded the mix of projects that is likely to provide the best AFB elimination value to levy payers,” King says.

For Prior, that there is not already an appropriate process in place for the Agency to make such assessments is frustrating.

“It will be, I am sure, a surprise to many beekeepers that the Agency at the moment has no mandate or budget to carry out research and development, to improve the operational capabilities for AFB detection.

“They are looking for a mandate from industry, but it’s not clear what form or shape this mandate should take. MPI and/or the Agency need to come back to industry and clearly show what is needed,” Prior says.

Stacking up the Numbers

While the Agency’s apparent lack of desire to advocate and lead further detector dog research is discouraging for Gifford and Prior, MPI advise that re-using the SFFF fund would be one way to help bring an operational research project to life.

“We would be open to having a conversation with the Foulbrood Detection project team about potential follow-on projects,” says Steve Penno, MPI’s director of investment programmes.

“SFF Futures is probably the best avenue for this sort of research, as the fund is open to early research that explores new approaches to issues that New Zealand's food and fibre sector needs to address. It is a co-investment fund, so partners need to contribute some of the costs.”

Like the initial Foulbrood Detection project, this would likely be in the realm of 50-percent co-funding from industry. Prior believes a contribution of $60,000 from the Management Agency, along with support for the concept of AFB dogs, would be enough to get the ball rolling though.

More Questions

So, despite the enthusiasm for the project’s findings from all parties, they appear at an impasse over how to progress it to the next step of assessing AFB sniffer dogs’ worth in the hives and beekeeper’s sheds.

So, that leaves the Manawatu beekeeper, Prior, and dog trainer, Gifford, at a point where they have invested considerable time and resources into a project for industry good, yet fearing it could all be for naught as it throws up more questions than answers.

Those questions come in terms of the research. “Wouldn’t it be good to get to a point where we can actually prove this beyond any reasonable doubt, as to whether dogs are going to be of use?” Gifford poses.

“Wouldn't it be nice to have answers.”

The questions come in terms of support for AFB detector dogs more generally though too, with Prior asking, “is a $60,000 contribution from the Agency over two years really too much to ask?”.

“The question now is, who is going to take this concept forward and operationalise it?”

Should the Management Agency help fund further research? Should the wider industry step up? Give us your thoughts, email


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