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Omaha beekeeper encourages vigilance to protect honeybees from contagious, deadly disease

One of every three bites of food depend on animal pollinators, USDA says
Omaha beekeeper Mark Welsch
Posted at 3:00 PM, May 02, 2023

OMAHA, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — An Omaha beekeeper is raising awareness to fight American foulbrood, a deadly, contagious disease that strikes honeybees.

Mark Welsch, a beekeeper who owns Elmwood Park Honey in Omaha, destroyed 50,000 bees last week in three colonies owned by Linda Lundeen in Omaha after determining the colonies were infected with the disease.

“Beekeepers, be aware that American foulbrood is alive and well in Omaha, Nebraska,” Welsch said Saturday. “If you have a hive in Omaha especially — but really every beekeeper everywhere should be looking for this disease to make sure that when it raises its ugly head, they can take action to kill it quickly.”

American foulbrood is relatively rare in Nebraska, Welsch said, but it can spread if left unchecked, including to wild beehives, where it could be even harder to control.

Around this time of year, beekeepers are checking their hives every 10-14 days, Welsch added, to make sure that diseases such as American foulbrood are not present and that their bees are healthy.

The contagion can be detected in a few ways, including through a “foul” smell or if there are diseased cappings in the honeycombs, which could be sunken or have waxy coatings.

Welsch said beekeepers can also insert a stick into a hive cell. If the stick comes out covered with a thick, gooey, stringy, brown substance, this is an indicator of foulbrood.

‘Very dangerous’

The disease impacts larvae, not adult bees, but because bees act as one unit, Welsch said, infected bees cannot be isolated.

Welsch spent Thursday night catching and killing the bees he and Lundeen had raised, which involved submerging the hive columns in soapy water and drowning the bees almost instantly.

This, he said, was the most humane way of handling the colonies.

“I did not let one bee escape my vigilance here because this is a very, very contagious disease,” Welsch said. “It’s very dangerous to bees, it kills them. I don’t want it to spread anywhere.”

On Saturday, Welsch burned the dead bees and the hive itself. He said he would later bury the ashes, as well, in case any honey escaped, to prevent further contamination.

‘For the good of everybody’

The drastic action is “for the good of everybody” with hives not too far from Lundeen’s house, in the Aksarben neighborhood. Bees from other hives could otherwise steal the honey from the diseased colony without intervention.

American foulbrood remains rare because beekeepers, by and large, are conscious of the problem and understand “quick and severe action” is needed to stop the spread, Welsch said.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture used to have staff to inspect beehives throughout the state, which Welsch noted ended many years ago.

Christin Kamm, communications director for the Agriculture Department, said foulbrood can be found almost worldwide, has no cure and is not a new or regulated pest. It is less common now because of increased education and understanding of the disease and how it spreads.

“While a serious disease, it is not currently a widespread problem in Nebraska,” Kamm said. “Beekeepers need to stay vigilant in the management of their hives and contact NDA with concerns.”

According to Welsch, American foulbrood bacterial spores can live at least 70 years.

‘Lose everything’

Lundeen said destroying her bee colonies has been very sad but necessary. Welsch added, “It’s difficult to kill your work.”

“Mark and I cried when he called me on Thursday and told me they were sick, and I’m like, in my mind, they were sick so he could fix them,” Lundeen said. “I didn’t realize that we were going to lose everything.”

Lundeen said she could not be with Welsch when he had to kill the bees but joined him Saturday at a neighbor’s house, whose backyard is adjacent to Lundeen’s house and includes a firepit.

Lundeen began taking care of her bees last year with Welsch’s guidance, and the bees had been healthy up to this point, including a bountiful harvest of honey in the fall. The bees had also become part of the neighborhood because the bees fly within a five-mile radius, and neighbors would let Lundeen know when they came to visit

Welsch said the destruction included about $300 worth of bees and $200 of equipment such as the hive structure.

Lauren Fehr, the neighbor who offered up her firepit to burn the bees, said she is glad to hear Lundeen may start a new colony in the future.

“I will miss all the honeybees flying over into my yard,” she said. “I was just getting some more flowers planted, and they were making their way over here.”

Lundeen and Welsch said the risk of the foulbrood spreading requires quick action, especially with pollination a critical component of the food chain.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 35% of the world’s food crops (one out of every three bites of food) depend on animal pollinators.

Welsch said beekeeping requires vigilance because, “If you can’t take a couple of hundred dollars out of your pocket, light it on fire without flinching, you don’t deserve to be a beekeeper, because sometimes you just have to do that.”

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