Bee Hive “Breathalyser” Sniffs out Deadly Disease
CRC for Honey Bee Products PhD Researcher Jessica Moran inspect a bee hive. Photo Credit: Prem Bates

A new technology patented by researchers from The University of Western Australia sniffs out the devastating American foulbrood (AFB) disease, a honey bee disease that ravages hives across Australia.

The researchers analysed over 100 compounds emitted by honey bee hives, and isolated those that are signature markers of AFB. These markers can then be loaded into an “electronic nose” that is used like a digital sniffer dog to screen for the disease.

Jessica Moran from the Cooperative Research Centre for Honey Bee Products identified the markers as part of her PhD research. She explained that early detection of AFB is crucial, as there is no effective treatment for the disease.

“As there is no treatment for AFB, if a beehive becomes infected it needs to be destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading. Sadly, this means incinerating the hive to eradicate the infected bee colony, a stressful and costly process for beekeepers,” explained Jessica.

The current means of detecting AFB relies on beekeepers visually identifying infected brood cells inside the hive or noticing the distinct foul smell only noticeable by humans in the advanced stages of the disease. This means every hive needs to be opened and checked by a highly skilled inspector, a time-consuming process which also risks spreading the disease further.

“An AFB e-nose will help safeguard the honey bee pollination services in Australia that are valued at $14 billion per annum. Rapidly screening hives for AFB, beekeepers will be able to detect outbreaks earlier, preventing severe losses in production and revenue,” Jessica said.

Jessica and her supervisor Dr Julia Grassl were recently awarded over half a million dollars in additional funding by AgriFutures Australia to develop their discovery into a commercial product.

“We’re currently developing the sensors, and are optimistic that the beehive breathalyser will be commercially available within the next five years. We envision the breathalyser benefiting both beekeepers and farmers of pollinator-dependent crops.”