New Research Updates From The NBU

York Biotech Campus
York Biotech Campus

Our Regional Bee Inspector, Mark McLoughlin, hosted delegates from the various Northern BKAs at the York Biotech Campus on 11th November. The day featured presentations about new research updates from the NBU by experts in their fields. I was lucky enough to attend, along with Pam and Stuart Hatton. Sadly, our fourth member, Graham Royle, was unable to participate as he is recovering from a nasty car crash – get well soon, Graham.

Bee Inspector

Mark started by explaining that our job was to spread the information gleaned from the day as far and wide as possible. He hoped we could reduce some pressure on the bee inspectors by doing this. There are vacancies for seasonal bee inspectors in both the North West and North East. They are stretched and cannot get around even the priority apiaries. Part of the job of Associations is to educate members on certain aspects of bee health.

The day’s purpose was to focus on the most significant threats and highest risks for our area apart from Varroa. Even though Varroa is ‘old news’ (unless you are in Australia), whenever I see bee inspectors or talk to scientists about bee health, the mite is always enemy number one. Varroa is still the most significant threat, but Associations already know this and how to monitor and treat it. Despite this, many relatively inexperienced beekeepers believe that going treatment free is a sensible option for them; I don’t think so.

Healthy Bees Plan 2030

Becky Clarkson gave an update on the latest ’10-year plan’ set out by the Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA). This brings together multiple agencies, such as the government, scientists, trade bodies and associations, with the following desired outcomes:

  • Effective biosecurity and good standards of bee husbandry to reduce pest/disease risk and improve the sustainability of honey bees
  • Enhanced skills and production capability of beekeepers and bee farmers
  • Sound science and evidence underpinning the actions taken to support bee health
  • Knowledge exchange and partnership approaches on bee health and wider pollinator needs.

The implementation plan can be downloaded from Bee Base.

Becky also mentioned that when the NBU is contacted about suspected notifiable pests/diseases, it’s a false alarm 95% of the time. Hopefully, local associations can improve this through education and training.

Sentinel Apiary Programme

Mark spoke about the Voluntary (VSA) and Enhanced (ESA) Sentinel Apiaries, strategically situated in areas with a high risk of exotic pests/diseases coming into the country. Debris samples from hives in sentinel apiaries are regularly analysed to spot signs of exotic pests. VSAs and ESAs are near ports, airports, and container sites. In the North West, some sentinel apiaries are near the docks at Liverpool and Birkenhead, plus Manchester Airport and Trafford Park. With a VSA, the sampling and most of the work are done by the beekeeper at the apiary, whereas with an ESA, it’s all done by a bee inspector.

The main focus of concern is the Asian hornet, small hive beetle and Tropilaelaps. Mark suggested that if Tropilaelaps arrived, it would make Varroa look like a beneficial insect! He showed a photograph of what appeared to be a dead swarm of bees on a container that had arrived from India. The bees were, in fact, alive; they were Apis Florea, which is a host of Tropilaelaps. Apparently, some recent research shows that Tropilaelaps may be able to survive in colder regions where the bees have a brood-free period, which is a worry.

One problem with Asian hornet trapping is that the hornets prefer fallen fruit and ivy flowers to the bait in the traps, so please keep your eyes open. In Bury, an Asian hornet queen was found in a cauliflower at a market…it flew off! Who knows where it went.

Foul Brood Multi-Locus Sequence Typing

Victoria Tonkies of FERA Science Ltd provided an update on findings from DNA analysis of European and American foul brood (EFB & AFB). They use a fancy multi-locus sequence typing (MLST) technique, focusing on 4 genes with EFB and 7 genes with AFB. By looking at any changes in the sequencing of these particular genes, FERA can identify different ‘strains’ of the diseases. They can also plot the geographical locations of such strains on a map. Over time (they’ve been at it since 2014), we can see how some are widespread, whereas others are in clusters. We can also see how different strains spread; at any time, some are on the rise, and some are declining. Sequence Type 3 (ST3) is the most common form of EFB in England & Wales, but ST7 is rising.

The spread of one strain of EFB
The spread of one strain of EFB

When you import queens and have to send off the cage with attendant workers to the NBU, they all end up with Victoria’s diagnostics team. Hives with AFB must be destroyed, which is often the fate of EFB-infected hives, too. The FERA diagnostics team’s work can help discover how well ‘shook swarming’ for EFB works. It can take several years to get rid of it, but it’s always lurking in the shadows somewhere.

Asian Hornet

Julia Hoggard made a plea for every beekeeper to instal the Asian Hornet Watch app onto their phones, as it is the best way to report sightings. She also stressed the importance of getting a photo of your suspected Asian hornet, as it helps eliminate many false alarms. Anyone familiar with Richard Noel’s YouTube channel will have seen how bad the hornets were this year in Brittany. We really need to be on guard, and every beekeeper should be able to identify an Asian hornet.

The difference between the Asian and common hornet
The difference between the Asian and common hornet

Julia mentioned that the hawking behaviour of Asian hornets is not always apparent, and they pounce on bees quickly; blink, and you miss it. Two bee inspectors have been hospitalised by stings from these beasties, so be careful out there. The Asian Hornet Handbook is highly recommended.

Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus

Giles Budge gave an update on this emerging virus which is spreading fast. He asked for a show of hands by delegates that have seen CBPV in their apiaries, and the majority had. A decade ago, there would only have been one or two hands, if that. I’ve written about this virus before, so I’ll just list some key points:

  1. The virus attacks the nervous system of bees, which leads to them trembling and ‘paralysis.’
  2. The black/hairless, waxy type of bees are the ones that have been harassed by other workers trying to chase them away because they have the disease.
  3. An individual bee with CBPV will be dead within 3-5 days.
  4. It’s a disease of adult bees, not brood.
  5. The spread of CBPV is much greater in large, crowded colonies.
  6. It does not appear to be spread in pollen or honey, nor by Varroa mites.
  7. CBPV has been found in other insect species and at much higher levels (1000x) in ants than in honey bees.
  8. No evidence of CBPV being imported via bought-in queens, although some evidence that queens from Denmark show slightly higher susceptibility to it than others once they get here.
  9. A significant source of disease spread is dead and dying bees on the hive floor.
  10. CBPV does not suddenly appear as many people say; it may seem that way, but it builds up over time and may not show symptoms for a long time or at all.

Giles said that we don’t really have a satisfactory answer in terms of finding ways to control CBPV. There is no data to support the idea that changing the queen works. Although shaking bees out and letting them fly home works sometimes, it doesn’t work any better than not doing it. Beekeepers have reported success by removing the floor with the hive suspended well above the ground level so that dead bees don’t stay in the hive. However, no proper studies have been done to back this up. It’s also a risk because a hive without a floor is more likely to be robbed, and robber bees may pick up the disease and take it back home.

Giles Budge of Newcastle University
Giles Budge of Newcastle University

As with all disease spread risks, lining hives up close together is an excellent way to optimise the spread, which is not what we want. Both workers and drones drift between hives, which, of course, can spread the virus.

Thymol Treatments At Low Temperatures

Ben Jones of FERA shared some preliminary findings of his recent research into the effectiveness of different thymol treatments at different ambient temperatures. So far, he has only done laboratory experiments with mini mating nucs containing very few bees, and only for a short period. He hopes to carry out extensive field trials across the country in 2024. At this stage, it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

7 thoughts on “New Research Updates From The NBU

  1. Ex-wbkachairman Stephen Auty

    Hi Steve. On the CBPV front I had two hives in a large apiary that suffered with this. One more than the other. In previous seasons I’d have shaken the bees out and let them find their own way back but I instead tried the open floor method for 8 weeks before wasps became a problem and it seemed to have a positive effect on the colony..

    • Thanks Stephen. I’ve heard some positive things about it from others, but I don’t think proper controlled experiments have been done.

  2. Maggie Gill

    Hi Steve,
    It’s really interesting to hear your thoughts on the NBU research and recent event. Could I share your article on the NBUs social media channels?
    Many thanks,
    Maggie Gill
    RBI – Wales.

  3. Fynn Mcbratney


    What an opportunity to visit the HQ. I would love to do this, I hope it could be offered to other BKA’s.

    Some worrying information there on Tropilaelaps. Fingers crossed we don’t get that aswell.

    I’ve also had a colony with CBPV – type 1&2. Recently I’ve heard colonies are being infected in Summer, not just Spring which is also worrying as I always thought the virus was spread through bees whilst bees were confined due to wet spring weather so I’m confused as to the reason for it being found in summer, especially when they are becoming dryer and bees are active. My bees didn’t stop flying this year even with the hottest (again) on record.

    • There’s a lot we don’t know about CBPV (and, in my case, many other things!). My guess is that a combination of different things come together – some to stress the bees and some to aid the virus – and then it takes off.

  4. […] that we have now had Asian hornets spotted in Tetbury in the UK, then Woolacombe and more recently in Lancashire, I wondered what […]

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