Honey Bee Hive Equipment Sterilization

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Craig Cella
Craig A. Cella


  • Animals: bees


  • Crop Production: beekeeping

    Proposal summary:

    Beekeepers biggest problem in one half to two thirds of the operations I inspected (for Pa. Dept of Agriculture as a honey bee inspector in ’08 and ’09) was that they were not profitable. We lost twelve thousand dollars in our own operation in 2008 and cannot afford to continue to do this. I have never actually seen a Colony Collapse Disorder infected hive or bee yard, that problem seems to be mostly confined to the larger migratory operations. I mostly inspect the smaller apiaries that manage between one or two hives to a few hundred hives. One of the interesting observations is that an operation is either productive or non-productive, there is no middle of the road – you either have a problem or you don’t. I can identify two of the viruses in the field but that leaves at least twenty others which can be in the colony adding to the problem. It is almost impossible to get samples tested for virus infection by any lab because of their own work load. Penn State University has some of the finest equipment and trained people but they simply do not have the time to do outside work because of their own research work load. I think beekeepers are going to have to start working like chicken farmers do when they have avian influenza (A.I. flu) in a poultry house. De- populate, disinfect and repopulate. Unfortunately it is impossible to sanitize the honey, pollen, and comb with disinfectant. However, Gamma Irradiation will. Two thirds of the beekeeping operations I inspected last year and this year were non sustainable farming operations. All of them seem to have the same problem with viruses. The operation is either healthy or sick, there doesn’t seem to be any in between. There is no cure for this problem that has been tested to date. They do know that Gamma Irradiation will kill any pathogens in a hive however it has never been done as a clinical trail with both a control group and test group. I want to sterilize every piece of equipment we own which means depopulating all the hives first and then repopulating next spring after Gamma Irradiation sterilization. This disease problem is not to be confused with Colony Collapse disorder. That is something all together different. Beekeepers need answers now – I am at the end of my rope along with 2/3 of the other beekeeper and it is only a matter of time until the other third fall into the non sustainable category.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The method used for this project will be the same treatment used in a poultry facility infected with Avian Influenza. That is depopulation, disinfect and repopulate. All of our bees will be destroyed this fall and all of the equipment will be returned to our farm. Every piece of equipment will be either burned or placed on pallets, banned and shrink wrapped to be shipped to New Jersey for Gamma Irradiation sterilization. Gamma Irradiation is a physical means of decontamination – it kills bacteria by breaking down bacterial DNA, inhibiting bacterial division, using high-energy photons that are emitted from an isotope source (Cobalt 60). Energy (gamma rays) passes through hive equipment, disrupting the pathogens that cause contamination. These photon-induced changes at the molecular level cause the death of contaminating organism or render such organism incapable of reproduction. The gamma irradiation process does not create residuals or impart radioactivity in the processed hive equipment. The process has been used for years to sterilize imported leather goods, spices, wine corks, medical dressings and devices, pharmaceuticals, etc.

    All hive components can be sterilized using gamma irradiation. Hive equipment is ready for immediate use after processing. The process is clean; no chemical residues are produced. Most importantly, gamma irradiation destroys, not just suppresses, the pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi) that may contribute to CCD and other biological threats that contaminate hive equipment. The process also eliminates the need to replace equipment or comb contaminated by American Foul Brood.

    It will kill any pathogens in honey, pollen, comb or equipment. However it has never been done in a clinical trail with a test and control group. I will install seventy five three pound packages with a queen in this sterilized equipment next spring and another seventy five packages will be given to fourteen other beekeepers that had poor honey production and indications of virus infection this past summer. Their packages will be installed into their empty equipment that previously contained bees but died out this past winter. Colonies will be managed the same way as their other ones for honey production. Both the test group hives (mine) and control group hives will be given numbers and monitored during the spring and summer. Late in August all of the colonies will be evaluated for honey production, brood production and indications of virus problems. I will perform a typical bee inspection on each colony with the beekeepers present and each finding will be recorded. A grid will be used to calculate the percentage of empty cells which is an indication of a colony’s health.

    My colonies will be in 6 or more locations along Rt. 80 over a distance of 160 miles so they are exposed to several different micro environments while the control group’s beekeepers range from 75 miles north of our house to 85 miles south and 90 miles west. This involves a lot of time and travel but the more micro environments involved in the project the more accurate the results will be.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.