European foulbrood (EFB) is found in the United States and almost every other country where bees are kept. It is a brood disease caused by the bacterium Melissococcus plutonius.
The hive often deals with mild cases of EFB, especially if weather and foraging conditions are favorable. But more severe cases may require chemical control.
There is a range of preventative measures that beekeepers can use to improve the odds of keeping healthy, EFB-free honey bees.
8 ways to reduce the risk of European foulbrood
To help prevent European foulbrood in the hive, beekeepers should exercise caution when buying brood and always sterilize used tools and equipment. Using bee breeds with resistance, avoiding outside food sources, and thoroughly cleaning shared extraction equipment will also help.
1. Use caution when buying hives
Buying a hive with bees is a quick way for beginner beekeepers to get started and apiaries to expand. The colony is already established, so they don’t have to build from scratch.
However, buying a hive may be risky as it could come with unwanted extras like mites or disease. It is essential to check for symptoms of European foulbrood before integrating with other hives and equipment. An experienced beekeeper familiar with hive diseases will greatly help at this stage.
We recommend keeping newly introduced hives well away from existing operations for 2-3 months. This staged introduction will allow for monitoring of symptoms.
2. Sterilize used tools and parts
Hives like the Langstroth have standardized dimensions, making buying second-hand parts like supers easy. While this saves money, used equipment and tools can easily transfer EFB spores.
To prevent any spread of disease into your beekeeping operation, sterilize parts, tools, and equipment. Use a solution of 1 part washing soda to 5 parts warm water. It’s best to immerse everything in the liquid and clean it at the same time using a wired brush.
If you don’t sterilize everything, start using a separate area for the new parts. Introducing them directly to the other hives is risky and may contaminate healthy bees.
3. Benefit from bee genetics
Some breeds of honey bees have a genetic disposition to hygienic behavior. They’re excellent at detecting brood infections and act quickly to uncap and remove whatever remains inside the cells.
Carniolan, Italian, and Russian bees are good at fighting parasites and some diseases. You can learn more about the traits of different bee races here.
Another common cause of EFB spread is robbing. Look into buying races of bees with a lower tendency to rob nearby hives.
4. Avoid using outside food sources
Introducing honey and pollen from an external source is a good way to introduce disease. Even commercially manufactured honey can contain spores that get fed to larvae. For a safer feeding alternative, use a sugar and water solution.
5. Take care when sharing extraction equipment
For many beekeepers, extraction equipment is a considerable cost. It makes sense to share the investment with other local beekeeping operations. However, this equipment introduces the risk of EFB spread, so give it a thorough clean before use.
6. Use a hive barrier system
Hive barrier systems are a sensible way to reduce the spread of European foulbrood in commercial apiaries. Operations with at least 50 hives can divide them into groups to help contain the spread.
Distance each cluster of hives and restrict hive parts, tools, and comb to those hives. Doing this will significantly reduce disease spread.
7. Maintain a prolific queen
If your queen isn’t laying eggs at a prolific rate, it may be time to replace her. Rather than waiting for her death, proactively replace the queen with a younger one. A healthy, populated hive that’s expanding has better odds of dealing with brood diseases.
8. Reduce stress
Bees don’t deal well with stress. It may cause them to slow down or stop their actions for days until they feel safe again. Moving hives, loud noise, inspections, and lack of food all slow hive activity. The colony is more susceptible to EFB and other diseases in this state.
Beekeepers should do everything they can to provide a peaceful environment for their bees. It will help them thrive and fight off unwanted threats.
European foulbrood can have a severe impact on honey bees. Beekeepers should do everything they can to prevent this disease from infecting colonies.
Sterilizing equipment from external sources and following good hive practices will help. Closely inspecting used hive parts and outside brood is also critical.
In larger operations, early detection and quarantine strategies have been found to reduce the spread of EFB. Hobbyist beekeepers can also apply this approach to mitigate loss if preventative measures don’t work.