Recovering Costs of an AFB Infection Through the Disputes Tribunal
Imagine being forced to burn all of your beehives due to American foulbrood (AFB) infection. Then imagine having to do it again. That was the case for Hamilton beekeeper Phil Evans, but second time around there was clear negligence from another local beekeeper and so Evans sought compensation. This is his story of going from complete hive destruction and back to beekeeping … twice … and where he believes we are going wrong in our AFB management.
By Phil Evans
It is well known that there isn’t a lot you can do to recover costs when your hives are wiped out from AFB. It is just an accepted fact that it is part of the cost of having bees. Even the experts say it is almost impossible to locate the actual source of the infection. But what if you could?
During the process of getting my kitchen registered to extract and bottle my honey under a National Program 1 (NP1), I had to factor in every possible scenario. I had to document each step, from clearing benches, moving my fridge into the laundry, thoroughly cleaning every surface, scrubbing down all equipment, washing floors, setting up the extractor, uncapping stations, filtering table, and bottling areas. There were processes for getting honey boxes into the kitchen, plastic drop sheets to put down, buckets at the ready. After the extractions were complete, every piece of equipment had to be cleaned and put away. Every part of the process had to be completed without my bees being able to access any honey, at any stage.
Removing bees’ access to honey was at the top of my mind throughout the whole process, as three years earlier I had lost all my hives to AFB. At that time I was confident where the infection had come from, but whenever I mentioned it, I was told there was no proof that the swarm I had collected from a friend’s hive was the source. When I discovered the first infection in my hives, I also found out that the swarm’s original hive had died out and was left completely empty.
I suggested to my friends that I take their hive back to my apiary (fully wrapped just in case), as I had arranged for an AFB detector dog to run over my remaining hives. It was a way of determining if the gear could be used for a future colony.
The detector dog indicated clearly on that hive, strongly hinting that it had AFB. I had split the swarm hive a few times, so in my mind, I was certain of the source of infection. The dog indicated on all my hives except one, but within weeks I had found clinical symptoms in that hive as well.
Once all my hives had been burned, I restarted and operated a ‘hive quarantine’ system, where each hive had its own gear, clearly marked, including a hive tool under each lid. I wanted to ensure that what I was doing would not contribute to spreading AFB among my hives.
A Community Response … or Lack of
Losing all my hives prompted a request to my local bee club to be more proactive with AFB, and this started a two-year AFB eradication programme which aimed to eliminate AFB from Hamilton. Sadly, uptake was not of a high enough standard, even with significant marketing and support from Dr Mark Goodwin.
It seems many of our beekeepers want the bees, they want the honey and the money from selling it, but they object to the costs involved. The first year of AFB spore testing by the club was free to members, but uptake was still low. The second year a small charge was introduced, and uptake dropped. It seemed that because only a few hives were infected each year, many probably thought why pay for something that isn’t in my hives… The real message still hasn’t got through, that prevention and elimination is far better than burning hives.
Extraction Rules, and a Rule Breaker
That experience played a big part in establishing instructions for when honey extraction customers brought their honey boxes onto the property. It was made very clear in writing, and verbally, that once they arrived, ‘my bees must not be able to access their honey’. Getting their boxes inside was to be a quick process, and the same at the end of the day. Loading the wets back into their vehicles was the last action before they left.
At the start of the first season of extraction, I was learning what my setup could handle. I was very comfortable handling up to 10 boxes at a time. One of my first contacts said he had 20 boxes, and could bring their electric extractor as well as an uncapping station. It would be a tight squeeze, but the only way to know if it would work was to try it. We would only be able to bring in 10 boxes to start, with the remaining 10 left on the back of the truck, tightly wrapped up. Very clear instructions were given, and the customer agreed he would wrap all the boxes in cling film.
When he arrived, everything looked fine. The customer was a semi commercial operator, so I accepted that he knew what he was doing, and understood all the risks of AFB. He knew I had hives on the property, and assured me he understood what he was required to do. I (wrongly) assumed that he had undertaken the usual AFB inspections when taking the boxes off the hives.
So when we went outside to unload the remaining 10 boxes, I was gutted to see my bees robbing all through the boxes. The cling film was not securely wrapped and the bees had found their way in through numerous gaps. This was my first experience of robbing, and it was ferocious. The bees were seriously angry, and started aiming for us.
Bee suits were put on, and the boxes taken to the other side of the back yard, the bees wiped off each frame, and the box taken inside through the back door. It took quite a while but we got them all cleared and the extraction continued, all the while I was hoping that his hives were clear of AFB. He assured me he hadn’t found AFB for years. At the time I had to trust that…
Back in My Hives
About three months later I found AFB in one of my seven hives, and my immediate thought was that fateful day. I reported the find, and made preparations to burn it. A couple of weeks later I found AFB in more hives. These were reported, along with phone calls to the AFB Management Agency, where I outlined my concerns about that robbing episode back in February.
One of the things I ask each of my customers was to take a 500g jar sample of their honey, which are lined up on the windowsill to demonstrate the various colours of different honey. I had taken a sample of this customer’s honey, and asked the Agency if that could be tested for AFB. They said ‘yes’, and I shipped a 50g sample to them. In the meantime, all of my hives had become infected and were destroyed… again!
This was the second time in three years I had lost everything. All six hives back in 2018, and now all seven hives in 2021. On both occasions I knew the source, the first backed up by the detector dog.
The test came back positive, with a very high AFB spore count. What was of real concern was the 50g sample came from a 500g jar of honey taken randomly from 278kg extracted on that day. The Agency immediately arranged for an AP2 inspection where AFB was confirmed. It was later reported the beekeeper lost 80% of his hives.
In my mind this was clear evidence that his honey was seriously contaminated with AFB, and was the source of infection in my hives. The chances of all seven hives getting AFB, when each hive had stringent quarantine applied to them, were almost zero. The source was from his honey, and I felt it only right he compensate me for what I had lost. I filed a claim with the Disputes Tribunal for $5000, and won.
The main task of the Hearing was to first determine if there was a ‘duty of care’ on both parties to protect each other’s hives from AFB infection. It was determined there was.
The next stage was to determine if that duty of care had been breached. This was discussed from both sides, and it was found the customer did in fact breach his duty of care. The requirement that ‘my bees must not access your honey’, was stated both verbally and in writing prior to the extraction day. The customer agreed to that, and stated in writing that he would securely wrap his boxes, knowing there were beehives on my property.
He also stated, during the hearing, that it was common practice for commercial operators to only inspect 1-2 frames of brood during AFB inspections. Having been through the AFB course twice, I knew the clear requirement is that all frames of brood are inspected. If commercial operators are only inspecting 1-2 brood frames per hive, New Zealand has a serious problem. It is no wonder the disease is so prevalent.
It was determined that the customer had breached his duty of care to protect my hives from infection, and on that basis, the final outcome was that he was required to pay the full amount I had claimed.
The awarded amount of $5000 covered all hive gear from seven hives, and included some compensation for loss of honey sales for the 2021/22 season. Thanks to the extraction business income the previous year, I was able to buy new hives and equipment during the spring of 2021 to re-establish my apiary. I have 12 colonies, as of June 2022, but my honey harvest for this season was only one third of last year’s due to new hives, nucs and splits to build numbers.
I believe this is the first time in New Zealand that a beekeeper has successfully recovered costs for all losses caused by AFB infection, and I hope this story will be the start of more vigilance by beekeepers, both hobbyists and commercial operators. Check for AFB properly. That means all brood frames at least once per year, and whenever adding or removing boxes. That is the industry standard. Failure to comply with that could result in wiping out someone else’s hives. Do you want to be responsible for that?
Support for the Agency
The Pest Management Agency need better funding to oversee the eradication of this scourge on our industry and I really hope that is understood when they next canvass to increase levies. I will certainly be supporting any increase in fees, if the result is I never have to burn another hive.
AFB is everyone’s problem and it needs to be taken more seriously. Every beekeeper should be checking their hives for AFB more often, and doing it properly – all frames, not just one or two. All beekeepers should be doing the AFB recognition courses, getting their own DECA’s and doing refresher courses every two years.
I was fortunate in being able to identify the source of AFB infection in my hives in this case, and was able to recover the costs. Having strict processes in both managing my hives, and my extraction facility, was key. This case was perhaps as clear cut as it may ever be, but it does highlight that all beekeepers need to be accountable for their beekeeping practices. Are you confident that your AFB processes will keep you out of court?
Phil Evans is a Waikato beekeeper with nine hives on two sites, and operates Dinsdale Honey, extracting honey from his rented property in Hamilton.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
This article is a simplified version of events. The complete timeline is:
February 2021: Honey extracted from infected supers.
Late May: First AFB hive in my apiary found
June: Honey sample sent for testing early June, with results returned late June.
Late June – late August: All other hives found to have AFB between end of June and late August.
Late August: Disputes Tribunal claim filed.
October: First hearing.
February 2022: Second hearing.
March 2022: Final decision advised.
May 2022: Lawyers became involved relating to the payment of the award and was finally settled with full payment made mid-May.