Honey culture tests to detect American foulbrood

American foulbrood (AFB) is a bacterial disease that kills honey bee brood (larvae and pupae). It can easily spread if it is not detected early and severe losses of colonies and hives can occur.

AFB spores and honey culture tests

Laboratory honey culture tests are used to detect AFB spores in honey. When spores are present in a sample of honey, the laboratory technician will count them. The number of spores can indicate if:

  • AFB disease signs (symptoms) are likely to be found in 1 or more hives in the apiary
  • there is a possibility that AFB might occur in the future

The detection of AFB spores in honey, or an outbreak of AFB in an apiary, is not an indication of a beekeeper's ability to manage bees. It is, however, important to be on the lookout for this disease and control it immediately in order to minimise losses of:

  • bee colonies
  • hives
  • honey production

The Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 requires that outbreaks of AFB be reported to the department.

Beekeepers can have honey tested by Gribbles Veterinary Pathology but they must pay Gribbles for this service.

Contact the Gribbles Help Desk on 1300 307 190 to request a honey culture test or larval smear sample test kits and information about the cost.

How honey tests can help beekeepers

Here are some examples of how honey tests can help beekeepers:

  • Beekeepers receive information about AFB for each yard of bees they keep when a sample of honey from each yard is tested.
  • AFB can be identified in apiaries even when the beekeeper is not aware of the presence of the disease.
  • Beekeepers can receive early warning of potential future AFB problems.

Type of sample required for the honey culture test

It is important that the sample, where possible, contains extracted honey from all the hives in the yard (apiary). It should be collected from the extractor or collected from the settling tank where honey from all the hives in one yard is mixed together.

To make the best use of honey tests, the sample should not contain any honey from any other yard of hives. This even applies to traces of honey from other yards that have been left behind in unwashed extracting equipment and tanks. Honey from different yards will be mixed together when extractors, sumps, pumps, lines, tanks and drums are not thoroughly cleaned to remove honey from a previous extraction.

If honey from different yards is included in the one sample it will not be possible to identify the yards that have AFB symptoms and those that don't. This uncertainty can increase the worry and workload for the beekeeper until the diseased yard is identified.

How to collect the sample of honey

Specimen container filled with honey

For beekeepers with more than one yard of hives

If your honey extraction plant allows it, follow this simple method to avoid mixing of honeys of different yards in the extraction lines and pump:

  • Collect honey at the extractor outlet before it reaches the sump and other points where mixing will occur.
  • As honey flows from the extractor during each extractor spin, a small amount of honey is collected and placed in a small pail. This is done for each spin until all combs from the one yard are extracted.
  • After thorough stirring, the sample is taken from the honey in the pail.
  • A clean pail and stirrer are used when combs of another yard are extracted.
  • If it is not possible to clean the extractor between yards, honey from the first extractor spin is not sampled but allowed to flush honey of the previous yard out of the extractor.

For beekeepers with 1 yard of hives only

Beekeepers who operate a single yard of hives will not have problems of mixing honey extracted from different yards and can sample honey direct from the settling tank.

Preparing the sample

2 honey samples which are not correct, one has sediment in it the other isn't a full container

  • For each yard, only use one sample container.
  • Fill the sample container to the top – the test cannot be done if there is not enough honey supplied. The honey must be clean, that is, free of wax, dirt, and parts of bee bodies.
  • Seal the lid of the container with tape to prevent honey leakage.
  • Write your name, beekeeper registration brand and yard (apiary) identification on the label of the container and also on the request form provided. If you have samples from other yards, choose a different identification for each sample and write it on the form.
  • If AFB spores are detected in a sample, you will then know which yard has a problem. Getting this right can save you a lot of work and worry in the future.
  • Place the container in the ziplock bag and the request form for that sample in the pouch of the same bag.

Further information

If you require further information or assistance, please contact the Customer Service Centre on 136 186 or email honeybee.biosecurity@agriculture.vic.gov.au

Page last updated: 18 Mar 2024