2010-08-03 00:00

AMERICAN Foulbrood. Could it be the latest teen vampire offering? No, its subject is for real and potentially a lot scarier. American Foulbrood is a disease that affects bees. To date it has swept through Europe and the Americas and now it’s in South Africa and could be showing soon at a beehive near you.

“And it’s here to stay,” says Carlos Francisco of African Heart Beat Films, maker of the feature-length documentary American Foulbrood which premiered at the Durban International Film Festival last week. “If you want to keep bees, this disease is something you will have to allow for, along with all the other things you have to deal with.”

Francisco’s film is a timely and informative wake-up call about a disease that has far wider implications that one might think. It also opens a window onto the fascinating, sometimes arcane, world of bee keeping.

This is Francisco’s first feature-length documentary. He trained as a film-maker at the Durban Institute of Technology (Diff) and then cut his teeth working in the film industry. His 2008 documentary Zulu Surf Riders also premiered at Diff and has since been invited to festivals around the world.

Francisco is also a bee keeper and runs a community bee-keeping project in the Trans­kei. Initially that was going to be the subject of his film. “But then this disease broke out,” he says.

American Foulbrood (AFB) is caused by a spore-forming bacterium, and bee larvae are infected by eating the spores in their food. The spores germinate inside the larvae and infected larvae die after their cell is sealed. AFB is easily detectable as the dead larvae turn into a stringy mush and give off a strong smell.

Matters don’t end there: the bacterium doesn’t die with its host and only does so after producing millions of spores. A dead bee larva can contain up to 100 million spores. These are spread through the hive by bees cleaning the infected cells and removing dead larvae. The spores remain viable for up to 50 years and can only be destroyed by exposure to temperatures above 150 degrees Centrigrade or via irradiation. Hives where spores are present must be burnt.

So far the disease, the most serious infectious disease to affect honeybees, has been confined to the Western Cape where it was first diagnosed in January 2009. It is thought to have been brought to this country in imported honey infected with the spores. Imported honey is supposed to be irradiated on arrival to eliminate AFB and other diseases. But if, for example, it is left in storage prior to irradiation and there is a leak, local bees will soon detect the presence of something sweet, taste it and thus spread the disease. “If a bee gets the slightest chance to get to a sugary substance it will,” says Francisco.

AFB is one of several diseases to affect honeybees over the past few years. The most notable have been tracheal mites that attack bees’ airways and Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that causes deformity in the wings. There has also been the phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has seen whole colonies simply disappear. This has had a huge impact in Europe and the United States.

The impact of AFB doesn’t simply mean less honey on supermarket shelves; it’s also a problem for fruit growers and other farmers whose crops depend on pollination. “One third of what we eat depends on honey bees as pollinators,” says an American bee keeper in archive footage seen in American Foulbrood.

But while AFB has swept through American and European bee populations there is a chance it might meet its match in the South African honeybee. In Europe and the U.S., where they have medicated bees for various diseases, this has weakened the genetic strains and the resistance to diseases such as AFB. At present, South African bee keepers are hoping that natural selection will win the day. But they are not complacent.

Biotechnologist Garth Cambray, founder of the Makana Meadery in Grahamstown, who features in American Foulbrood, says bee keepers dealing with AFB are faced with three options: one, do nothing; two, use antibiotics; and three, kill the infected bees and destroy the infected hives.

Cambray favours the first option. “South Africa has huge genetic diversity in bees,” he says. “In overmanaging AFB we run the risk of damaging bees even more.”

Cambray says there have been “the end of bee keeping is nigh” reports before. “In the eighties there was the trachea mite, then came the Varroa mite. Each time the end of bee keeping was predicted. Then two to three years later it was back to bee keeping as usual. Perhaps our bees are a little bit craftier than we are.”

Western Cape bee keeper Brendan Ashley- Cooper advocates the same approach despite having initially lost 30% of his bees to AFB over a five-month period. He thinks bees should be left alone to work it out for themselves. “We must use natural selection to get some bees tolerant to AFB.”

Francisco says that currently Ashley-Cooper has a three-percent infection rate in a total of 1 000 hives. “It seems to be working,” he says, “just leaving them alone and letting them genetically deal with it.”

Francisco says he is optimistic that in the long run AFB will be contained and intends updating his film at intervals to keep abreast of developments. “We hope to adapt and evolve the film in parallel with the ongoing situation.”

• DVDs of American Foulbrood can be purchased via African Heart Beat Films website:

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