Nosema and Honey Bees

Nosema and Honey Bees

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Among the diseases that strike adult honey bees, nosema is one of the most widespread. The disease is caused by Nosema apis, which is a microspordian: a small, unicellular parasite. During its dormant stage, Nosema apis is in the form of a spore, which is resistant to extremes of temperature and to dehydration. The spores cannot be killed by freezing a contaminated comb.

Worker bees are affected more than drones; the queen is rarely afflicted, since worker bees who are ill with the disease do not generally participate in feeding the queen or otherwise coming into close contact with her. Because the symptoms of nosema are nonspecific, it is easy to confuse the disease with other diseases that affect honey bees. One notable symptom is dysentery; the presence of dysentery in a hive may manifest itself with the appearance of yellow stripes outside the hive and sometimes inside the hive. Bees with dysentery may develop disjointed wings and lose the ability to fly; they may be seen crawling. Other symptoms may include increased girth of the abdomen and missing sting reflex.

If the queen is affected, there will likely be an early supersedure — the process within a hive of replacing the queen. A diseased queen will suffer degeneration of her ovaries and a drop in egg production. Worker bees will of course take note of this drop in production, condemn the malfunctioning queen, and begin developing a new queen.

Worker bees who fall ill with nosema may die in the hive, particularly if they lose the ability to fly; or they may leave the hive and die elsewhere. In either case, there is a drop-off in food collection, which may eventually lead to the collapse of the colony. To become infected, a bee must swallow a nosema spore; spores enter the epithelial cells of the ventriculus and germinate quickly, increasing in size and rapidly regenerating. The cells soon become filled with spores; they will then burst, releasing digestive enzymes as well as large numbers of spores.

Nosema and Honey Bees Nosema
Nosema and Honey Bees

In this way, the disease affects the ability of bees to digest; affected bees are particularly unable to digest pollen. And because the disease can spread so quickly among bees, it is more prevalent in the winter months, when bees are cooped up in their hives. Infections can also rise rapidly in the early springtime, as brood rearing gets under way but before bees begin spending more time outside the hive foraging for nectar and pollen. Bees in northern climates, where winters are longer, are more susceptible to infection.

Diagnosis can be made by microscopic examination of a bee�s ventriculus — the midgut area — or fecal matter. There may be no outward signs, but the ventriculus may appear whitish and swollen. The spores themselves are rice-grain shaped, 4 to 6 microns long. The disease can be treated to some extent with the antibiotic Fumidil B, which prevents the spores from replicating in the ventriculus but does not kill them. If there is an extensive outbreak, a complete disinfection of the honeycombs and all beekeeper utensils is recommended. The spores are sensitive to certain chemicals, such as acetic acid and Formalin, and also to ultrasonic and gamma radiation. Various natural treatments are possible as well; such products, with the brand names Protofil, ApiHerb, Vitafeed Green, and others, contain blends of plant extractions, vitamins, and microelements; some may be more effective than others. Beekeeping equipment can be disinfected by heat treatment — at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours.

A variant of Nosema apis, called Nosema ceranae, was originally described in 1996 in Taiwan and has since been observed affecting honey bees elsewhere in Asia. The two spores are very similar in appearance under routine microscopy; several more advanced detection methods have been developed to distinguish between the two pathogens. Nosema apis has been a known hazard to honey bee colonies for decades, but Nosema cerenae has only become known in the past 10-15 years, and it has since spread from Asia to Europe and North America. Some believe that Nosema cerenae, which is more difficult to eradicate than Nosema apis, has played a significant role in colony collapse disorder — a broad-based, global phenomenon that has seen drastic reductions in honey bee and bumblebee populations, both domestic and wild. Most researchers of colony collapse disorder, however, conclude that the phenomenon is the result of a combination of factors.

Either of these spores can be deadly to your bee colonies. Pay careful attention to the behavior of your bees, and look for other symptoms, so you can catch this disease early.


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