Using Canine Sense of Smell to Save Bees

Cybil Preston, chief apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, is expanding her canine detection program, training dogs to find traces of American foulbrood, a bacteria that can decimate beehives. Credit Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

There’s plenty of news about bees being under environmental threat, so we thank NYTimes contributor Tejal Rao for this story of harnessing a natural strength of one species to help save another.

With a Sniff and a Signal, These Dogs Hunt Down Threats to Bees

Ms. Preston seals dog toys in a plastic bag with foulbrood to saturate them with the scent. Credit Andrew Mangum for The New York Times

JARRETTSVILLE, Md. — Cybil Preston stretched her bare hands into a noisy beehive and pulled out a frame of honeycomb, its waxy cells filled with nectar, its surface alive with bees.

“This girl right here was just born,” she said, pointing out a bee with a silvery thorax. “See how her hair is still matted down like a teddy bear?”

Ms. Preston, the chief apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, was on a routine survey of registered colonies northeast of Baltimore. “I’m always looking for signs and signals,” she said, as she examined a worker bee with a misshapen wing. “It’s like ‘CSI.’”

Ms. Preston, 45, certifies that each beehive crossing the state line is free of American foulbrood, bacteria that are harmless to humans but can spread quickly from hive to hive, decimating bee populations.

“Everything else that can go wrong with the hives is fixable,” she said, “but not that.”

Four years ago, Ms. Preston trained a dog to help her find foulbrood, figuring it out as she went along. She recently received a grant through the federal farm bill to expand her canine detection program, which could serve as a model for other states.

Unlike human inspectors, dogs don’t need the hives opened up to check them for foulbrood. They can trot by, sniffing at the comb, and tell if the bacteria have killed off any larvae. Four people working full time cover less than half of what her dog can, Ms. Preston said.

Her golden Labrador, Mack, inspected about 1,700 honeybee colonies last fall and winter. In the cold, when the bees were clustered and the comb was hard to inspect visually, Mack used his nose. This allowed Ms. Preston to continue certifying hives for shipment to warmer climates.

“If I didn’t have dogs, these bees just wouldn’t be able to move,” she said.

On a recent Friday morning, on the green slopes behind her home here in Jarrettsville, Ms. Preston tossed a toy around for Tukka, a young springer spaniel she had just adopted.

At first glance, it didn’t look like a workday. But that toy had been sealed in a plastic bag with foulbrood, and Ms. Preston was in the early stages of training Tukka on the scent. With any luck, he will join her team before the end of the year…

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