An industry group representing beekeepers says livelihoods are at stake, after a Canterbury business was forced to destroy $2 million dollars of equipment at the weekend.

Springbank Honey was ordered to burn 10,000 bee boxes after two tests at its shed came back positive for spores of American foulbrood disease, or AFB.

Its owner, Steven Brown, was told to comply within seven days or he would be prosecuted. He was offered no compensation for the loss, and told he could be fined or even jailed if he disobeyed.

Despite that, thousands of his boxes were never tested for the bacteria.

The national agency that made the order, under the Government’s pest management plan, has the power to demand gear be destroyed if it suspects it is “potentially” contaminated.

That means it tested some, but not all of boxes – and then ordered them all be burned.

President of New Zealand Beekeeping Incorporated, Jane Lorimer, described that approach as “very concerning”.

The bacteria could survive in bee boxes for decades, she said – and that meant many beekeepers across the country would have some contamination in their equipment.

“A lot of beekeepers will have a residual amount probably,” she said. “I think we’re all very concerned because our livelihood is at stake. If we don’t have our bees and our equipment, we can’t operate. We can’t survive.”

Beekeepers say work often centred around hives with actual visual signs of the sickness although individual boxes could also be tested for bacteria spores.

But under the current law, any beekeeper in the country could be ordered to destroy “potentially” contaminated equipment.

Lorimer is now trying to clarify the approach, saying it’s not what beekeepers signed up for.

“I think the tests should be available so that people can actually monitor what level of spores they’ve got in their equipment if they want,” Lorimer said.

“But I don’t think it should be used as a tool to actually destroy equipment.”

‘It’s like you’re ripping your soul out’

The owner of Springbank Honey says he is now short of thousands of boxes for the upcoming spring.

Steven Brown described the burning of his equipment as “devastating”.

Footage shows him and his family creating an enormous pile of boxes, covering them with diesel, and then setting light to it.

“It’s like you’re ripping your soul out,” he said.

“It’d be like someone burning your house down — take all their contents out of their house, and put a match to it — that’s what we did.”

AFB affects the larva of bees and is a serious risk to honey production in New Zealand, but there is dispute around the best way to tackle it.

The disease has been in New Zealand for more than 100 years and is monitored through the Government’s pest management plan.

The body responsible for implementing this – the AFB Pest Management Plan Management Agency – says it is a serious and infectious disease, and beekeepers have obligations to eliminate AFB in their own hives.

“The Management Agency directs a beekeeper to destroy potentially contaminated gear when the biosecurity risk of spreading AFB by reusing the gear is considered too high,” chair Mark Dingle said in a statement.

‘Keeping the rest of the beekeeping sector safe’

He added that as few as 10 spores can infect a single bee larva and the agency is “accountable for keeping the rest of the beekeeping sector safe”.

However, Brown argues that other countries have found ways to live with it through methods like vaccines and radiation.

“This pest management strategy, the way they’ve done it for the last 20 years, has not worked,” he said.

“The disease level has gone through the roof in New Zealand.”

Brown says two of the six tests at his shed came back positive, and he was then told to destroy two full bays of equipment, worth $2 million, including 2000 new boxes that were shrink-wrapped.

He argues that the approach is “hitting a walnut with a sledgehammer”.

“A good part of them were brand new boxes, they’d never ever been on a beehive, there’s no disease in them,” he said.

“It’s not like you’re burning rubbish, my livelihood went up in smoke.”

Burning is the only effective control

In response, the Management Agency said that burning was the only effective control measure in New Zealand.

It did not respond to several specific allegations, including a claim that its staff had been rude, and did not care about the impact of the order.

The dispute continues: the agency arguing that the impact is worth it — while the beekeepers paying the bill disagree.