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  • Stu Ferguson

Time for AFB Agency to Cost-Analyse New Tech


Wairarapa beekeeper and Apiculture New Zealand board member Stu Ferguson is an innovator, evidenced within his Hunter Reilly beekeeping business and the Hive Doctor hiveware he founded. Recently his interest has been piqued by new research aimed at diagnosing American Foulbrood (AFB) in hives. Best utilising the findings will take innovation within the AFB Pest Management Plan (PMP) though, so he has been thinking through a method...

I think the AFB PMP has an obligation to levy payers to show they are using the funds they receive to get the highest performing results possible and strength test new ideas – luckily, we have a couple of very useful new options coming on stream and I would like to propose a strategy in which they could possibly be implemented.

Stu Ferguson, beekeeper-owner of Hunter Reilly and proven innovator within apiculture, has been giving thought to a potential new approach to managing AFB nationally.

The lack of an eradication programme after 25 years of basically hot spot management is a gap in what we are doing with AFB compared to, for example, what is being done with Bovine tuberculosis. TB control has shown that regional hotspot and movement control can successfully eradicate what was once considered an endemic disease. AFB has yet to demonstrate a systematic strategy to eradicate the disease.

An extremely poor season nationwide this year, excess amounts of older honey that requires blending to meet market requirements and a large exodus of beekeepers and capital, all means beekeepers are short of money and the industry will remain significantly stressed through the next few years. Hive numbers are down, potentially to 600k or less when the 2023 registration numbers come in.

Anecdotal evidence suggests AFB incidence is up, with cases reported likely originating from abandoned hives. I believe the AFB Board needs to show that they are looking at all options to increase capability and reduce expenditure, given the industry situation, and the likely dramatic drop in hives which can be levied.

We have now had peer reviewed work done on ‘detection’ dogs and hopefully soon we can say the same of qPCR testing. In tandem they could provide answers for a lower cost operating model with potentially better outcomes for levy payers.

Dogs have the ability to inspect large amounts of hives during the off-season, when they are relatively stationary. As for dnature's qPCR Foster Test method, I have personal experience seeing it pick up AFB infections in hives that were not showing clinical signs.

An operating model that uses both dogs and qPCR testing has the potential to provide the platform for eradication, due to its potential to eradicate spore sources from operations. This is a distinct capability lacking in current methods. As we have seen with bovine TB, to eradicate the disease requires an eradication plan, and I can envisage that with these capabilities and more targeted honey sampling we can isolate the disease before it spreads, and at a much lower cost.

As a beekeeper and levy payer, I would like to see the most efficient use of $$ and in my opinion increasing use of dogs, followed by beekeeper inspection and qPCR testing for non-clinical hives, seems like a common-sense approach, but we need to do the cost benefit analysis (CBA). Thus, I would like to see a CBA on:

  1. Much wider honey sampling, I.E mandated testing on all those submitted for tutin, or export manuka tests.

  2. Use this data, alongside reported incidence, to target more operations. However, rather than using AP2s, use detection dogs which can cover many hives in a short amount of time.

  3. On a positive indication, the dog handler would apply a QR sticker to the lid of affected colonies and this would be uploaded with geo-co-ordinates to Hivehub.

  4. Now the Agency has a record of high risk hives they can send the beekeeper a notification to inspect, or send AP2s to inspect. If they cannot see AFB, they then can request a qPCR test kit.

  5. The beekeeper would then be required to either destroy the hive(s) or provide a negative qPCR test for the affected colonies. Scans of the QR codes would signify that hives have been visited, and data (such as inspection or qPCR test results) could be stored alongside the code. Honey sampling would validate that compliance is working.

The possible argument that human eyes are better than qPCR or a dog’s nose (even if only 90% correct) does not justify the continued approach of 100% human inspection because the cost of training, transporting and increased volume of inspections would potentially dwarf low-cost broad scanning methods that do not require hives to be opened. The holistic advantage is, you are empowering the beekeeper to take ownership, rectify a problem, and take control of the process. Of course, certain beekeepers will not adhere to this methodology and AP2s will be key in these instances.

If eradication is the goal of the AFB PMP and an improved, efficient method of identification is discovered, then trials should begin ASAP. The added ability of being able to remove infected supers from your operation makes dogs a massive step forward in capability.

This approach could use AP2, qPCR and beekeeper resources much more effectively, plus incentivise beekeepers to take responsibility and mean less AP2s required. I suspect a vastly greater amount of AFB would be found and destroyed. This offset cost of using the dogs for the broad scanning needs cost analysis and the argument must be made that now is the time to look for or analyse more efficient options.



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