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History of honeybee diseases

Healthy bee broodOne of the most useful threads running through Bees in America was the history of pests and diseases that have troubled American hives nearly from the beginning.  Foulbrood and wax moths were the biggest issues in the early nineteenth century, and damage by the greater wax moth seems to have been even more extreme that varroa moths and colony collapse disorder are today.  In fact, 80% of the apiaries around Boston were abandoned by 1809 due to depredations of the greater wax moth.

Being able to inspect hives made a big difference in fighting both of these early pests once Langstroth developed a hive with movable frames, and foulbrood became even less common after a 1923 law outlawed bee gums and allowed bee inspectors to burn hives when signs of the disease were apparent.  However, foulbrood remained a major problem among American beekeepers until antibiotics were developed to fight the bacterium after World War II.  Unfortunately, some strains of the problematic microorganisms became resistant to antibiotics by the 1990s, which led beekeepers to begin using Integrated Pest Management, medicating hives only when signs of foulbrood were evident.  A similar strategy was used for varroa mites, which entered the scene along with tracheal mites in the 1980s.

Bees carrying in pollenPests and diseases weren't the only hurdle honeybees had to face, though.  Pesticides drifting from farmer's fields into bee territory became a major problem around the 1950s, and continued throughout the second half of the twentieth century.  The federal government developed some methods of remunerating beekeepers for their dead hives, but cash payouts didn't help the bees themselves.  Eventually, the worst pesticide, which came in grains that looked like pollen to bees, was outlawed.

Horn's book ended with the small hive beetle hitting Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in 1998, so no mention was made of colony collapse disorder, which started showing up two years after the book was published.  It's interesting to put our current beekeeping woes in perspective, though, and to realize that keeping bees in America has always been a struggle against pests, diseases, and chemicals.  As I'll explain in tomorrow's post, trying out different bee varieties can be part of the solution when new issues rear their ugly heads.


This post is part of our Bees in America lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:


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