Bees at risk as worst case of apian ‘anthrax’ in 10 years detected

Bees by a hive - Bees at risk as worst case of apian 'anthrax' in 10 years detected
The only way to deal with American foulbrood is to burn the bee colony - iStockphoto

Bee colonies are under threat from a lethal disease after the worst outbreak of apian “anthrax” in 10 years was detected in North East England.

American foulbrood (AFB) has been found in more than 30 colonies within a six-mile square area near Guisborough, North Yorkshire, according to the National Bee Unit.

AFB is caused by a bacteria that infects young bee larvae, which then spreads through the hive leading to the death of the colony.

The only way to control the outbreak is by burning and destroying all the infected colonies.

It follows previous reports that some Asian hornets, which kill British bees, had managed to survive the winter thanks to milder weather.

Record rainfall in spring has also resulted in lower number of bees in gardens this summer, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust warned last month.

Asian hornet
British bees are having a bad run at the moment with the Asian hornet, which can kill bees, surviving the winter - Getty Images/Jonathan Raa

New outbreak is a ‘death sentence’ for bees

The National Bee Unit, which is part of the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, said the new AFB outbreak was the largest since 2014, when 33 colonies were infected in Norfolk.

In June, 30 colonies were found to be infected, while another infected colony was found near Redcar, North Yorkshire, this month.

John Canning, from the Cleveland Beekeepers Association, said once AFB is discovered the “only solution is to burn the colony”. He added that he believed the Guisborough outbreak had affected two apiaries, which contain multiple hives.

There are two types of foulbrood disease, and while European foulbrood is more common in the UK, infected colonies can sometimes be saved if treated.

The American variety, however, is considered a death sentence.

“AFB actually has spores in it like anthrax that can live for 30 years or so,” said Mr Canning. “If you try and reuse the equipment it can come back.”

Once a colony infected with AFB is discovered, beekeepers are required to notify the National Bee Unit. The body said AFB was first discovered in the UK in the 1940s and only through its policy of “compulsory destruction of infected colonies” had the number of cases come down from several thousand per year to fewer than 100.

However, its advice warns the spores from AFB can survive in honey for decades.

“One of the things people shouldn’t do is feed honey to bees, as it might have the spores of American foulbrood in it,” said Mr Canning.

Pesticide lethal to bees used over past two years

It comes as the environmental watchdog has launched an investigation into the Government’s emergency authorisation of a banned pesticide toxic to bees.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) said it was seeking to determine if there were “serious failures” to comply with environmental laws when the Environment Department (Defra) granted the use of neonicotinoid Thiamethoxam on sugar beet seeds in 2023 and 2024.

The pesticide, which is lethal to bees, was banned in the UK and EU in 2018.

It was approved for emergency use in the UK for a fourth year in a row in January, sparking anger from environmental groups who described it as a “death blow” to the pollinating insects.

The Government said the neonicotinoid could be used on sugar beet “because of a danger that cannot be contained by any other reasonable means”.

Farmers spaying pesticides
Lethal to bees the pesticide neonicotinoid Thiamethoxam was used in the UK in 2023 and 2024 - Digital Vision /Justin Paget

Farmers use the pesticide to kill aphids that can spread the beet yellows virus and the Government said it wanted to protect their livelihoods.

Labour has said it will end the temporary exemptions on the ban of “bee-killing” neonicotinoid pesticides.

A spokesman for Defra said: “We are at a crisis point – nature is dying across Britain. This government will change existing policies to ban the use of bee-killing pesticides to protect our vital pollinators.”