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Watch: 'Absolutely devastated': Honey company forced to destroy $2m worth of bee boxes

Katie Oliver,
Publish Date
Wed, 15 May 2024, 1:09pm

Watch: 'Absolutely devastated': Honey company forced to destroy $2m worth of bee boxes

Katie Oliver,
Publish Date
Wed, 15 May 2024, 1:09pm

A New Zealand beekeeper said he is $2 million out of pocket after being ordered to destroy thousands of hives, by authorities that found traces of American foulbrood disease (AFB).

North Canterbury company Springbank Honey was forced to burn thousands of bee boxes by the National American Foulbrood Management Agency.

The bacterial disease weakens and kills honeybee colonies. Once infected, they never recover.

Springbank Honey director Steven Brown said they faced criminal prosecution if they didn’t destroy the affected hives - even though the disease itself wasn’t detected.

“They ran six tests, two of them came back as having AFB spores... they did not find any clinical disease there,” he said.

“I’m just absolutely flabbergasted... you just have to comply with them or you end up in prison,” he said. 

There’s currently no compensation available to keepers in this position. Brown is concerned that honey businesses across the country are being backed into a corner. 

“You have no way out of it, whether they’re right or wrong... they will prosecute you immediately,” he said. 

Springbank Honey owner Steven Brown. Photo / George HeardSpringbank Honey owner Steven Brown. Photo / George Heard 

Brown does not believe that the number of spores detected justified the amount of boxes burned. 

“The issue is not that we don’t believe in trying to get rid of AFB out of beehives, we have no problems with that,” Brown said. 

He believes the spore levels were well below the infecting level. 

National American Foulbrood Management Agency compliance manager Niharika Long said she could not share the spore count as it was “commercially sensitive”. 

Long explained the count detected in the Springbank Honey case was enough to pose a biosecurity risk. She wants people to understand that spores alone can spread the disease. 

“Spores are highly resistant; they can survive in nature for over 30 years. They may not affect adult bees, but they do affect colonies – when adult nurse bees feed the spores to the honeybee larvae,” she said. 

The family watch on as thousands of bee boxes were destroyed.The family watch on as thousands of bee boxes were destroyed. 

The use of antibiotics to control AFB is illegal in New Zealand. Antibiotics only work to mask the symptoms rather than eliminate the disease. This means the only way to remove it is through preventative practices – like burning. 

“It can be quite confronting in that way... but I do want to assure people that while it is quite a destructive method, it has to be done to protect our sector,” Long said. 

Long said she “could not stress enough the importance of destroying any equipment” with traces of American Foulbrood. 

“If you keep the contaminated gear, you’re going to keep using it and it’s going to spread and you’re potentially risking beekeepers around you,” she explained. 

Long said keepers can protect the sector by remaining vigilant and notifying authorities of any sign of the disease. 

Brown is concerned those regulating the disease do not have sufficient training. Long explained many of the inspectors are beekeepers themselves, aiming to protect their industry. 

“We have annual training to make sure everyone is recalibrating and picking out those gaps where things need to be adjusted in terms of training and education in the sector,” she said. 

Long wants to acknowledge the compliance of Springbank Honey. 

“They’re showing a huge amount of bravery and they’re essentially protecting the rest of the sector... The management agency does not enjoy destroying beekeepers’ livelihoods,” she said. 

Currently, 0.5 per cent of New Zealand’s registered colony numbers have an incidence of AFB. 

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