Virus will be pitted against pathogen to combat a nasty disease hurting New Zealand's hard-working honeybees.

New Zealand scientists have turned to what are called bacteriophages to combat bacterial pathogen American Foulbrood (AFB), the single largest disease that affects honey bees here.

AFB is spread through spores, which once ingested by young bee larvae, rapidly multiply and kill by breaking down the larvae's body.

More than 700 cases of it were reported of it in the latest survey year, and among them was one North Island commercial beekeeper's loss of 200 colonies.

Advertisement

Unlike most countries, New Zealand law bans the use of antibiotics to control AFB, meaning beekeepers must instead take preventative measures: an infected hive must be destroyed within one week of signs being recognised.

But the industry could soon have an effective new weapon in bacteriophages - simple viruses that can infect the harmful pathogen and destroy it from within.

In a Government-funded project kicking off later this year, Massey University researchers will team up with American Foulbrood Management Agency experts to look into a natural bio-protective agent to help keep the pathogen at bay.

"Our work is not focused on providing a cure for infected hives, but as a measure to prevent infection in a hive before it takes hold," said Massey microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson, who is heading the new project.

With the bees shaken off the frame, the presence of American foulbrood is obvious. Photo / File
With the bees shaken off the frame, the presence of American foulbrood is obvious. Photo / File

"My lab has been working with bacteriophages for a number of years and we have been discovering more and more about the power of these simple and abundant viruses."

Previous work overseas indicated New Zealand AFB pathogens were susceptible to a set of specific bacteriophages present in our soils.

Hendrickson's team will undertake a large-scale screening of soils, while working with the beekeeping community to gain hive samples.

Bacteriophages are simple viruses that can infect the harmful pathogen and destroy it from within. Photo / File
Bacteriophages are simple viruses that can infect the harmful pathogen and destroy it from within. Photo / File

"The ideal bacteriophages are hypothesised to be most abundant in the soil beneath healthy hives so obtaining these samples from beekeepers is crucial to unlocking the secret to these hives' success," Hendrickson said.

"The neat thing from a citizen science perspective is that if we find a bacteriophage in their soil samples, the beekeepers get to name a bacteriophage."

The screening will be undertaken using an anaerobic chamber donated by the University of Otago.

Once isolated, the bacteriophages will be sequenced to determine if they're safe for use in a "phage cocktail" to be later field-tested.

"Bacteriophages will have no effect on other bacteria in the environment," Hendrickson said.

"Our work is not focused on providing a cure for infected hives, but as a measure to prevent infection in a hive before it takes hold," Massey's Dr Heather Hendrickson says. Photo / File

"They are a natural, native, biodegradable alternative to chemical or drug-based measures which leave unwanted residues, unlike antibiotic treatments which are already banned by the industry because of the residue they leave in the honey."

Once the pathogen was cleared, these viruses would be naturally recycled over time.

"Bacteriophages have many benefits over antibiotics, as they can be targeted to specific bacteria while the rest of the healthy microbial communities thrive," she said.

"If the phages are successfully isolated, work could then be undertaken to develop a marketable, sustainable and inexpensive product for the beekeeping industry in New Zealand."