Dogs Used to Detect Devastating Threat to Bees

July 26, 2018
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

Maryland’s Department of Agriculture is taking advantage of dogs’ keen sense of smell to detect foulbrood in its bee colonies.

Colonies from Maryland’s buzzing bee business are leased to work blooms around the country—but not before they receive a paw of approval from the state’s 4-legged apiary inspector.

Since 1982, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has had a dog on staff specially trained to detect American foulbrood in beehives. Once trained, the dogs can walk by, sniff at a comb, and determine if even low levels of the offending bacteria are present; whereas human inspectors need to open the hives to examine them. Dogs work faster, too. A single dog can reportedly inspect 100 honeybee colonies in less than an hour; a human inspector can inspect only 45 colonies in a single day.

According to the department, Maryland is the only state in the country with a bee-disease—sniffing dog on staff.

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Although harmless to humans, foulbrood is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Paenibacillus larvae and can be devastating to the bee industry. The microscopic spores spread quickly from hive to hive and can survive for decades, killing bee larvae in its path. If foulbrood is not caught in time—small outbreaks can be treated with antibiotics—the entire hive typically has to be destroyed, as does any equipment that came into contact with the bacteria.

“Everything else that can go wrong with the hives is fixable,” Cybil Preston, chief apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture told the New York Times, “but not that.”

Preston took over the role of chief apiary inspector when the previous inspector and his foulbrood-sniffing dog retired. Although she had to restart the program from the ground up, Preston has already successfully trained her Labrador retriever, Mack, to fill the role and she continues to train other dogs as well.

Under her supervision, the program has been so successful that Preston recently received a grant through the federal farm bill to expand the detection program, with hopes that it may one day serve as a model for other states.

To prepare dogs for the role, Preston trains them in part by playing with toys that have been saturated with foulbrood. As the training progresses, she hides the scent in a training apparatus she built specifically for this purpose.

Once officially cleared for work, the dogs sniff for foulbrood primarily in the fall and winter months, when bees are more docile. Last year, Mack sniffed out 1700 colonies and is preparing for the year ahead.