Pollinator Paw-tectors Save Beehives From Disease
The saying “not all heroes wear capes” cannot be more true than it is for the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s (MDA’s) two apiary disease detector dogs. Their names are Mack and Tukka and they have been working with the department’s Chief Apiary Inspector Cybil Preston to inspect commercial beehives across the state for disease.
American Foulbrood (AFB).
AFB is a highly contagious bacterial disease among honeybees that has the potential to devastate entire colonies.
At MDA, our Apiary Inspection Program checks commercial beehives and certifies them as disease-free before they leave the state. Commercial beehives are often shipped around the country for use at farms that need help pollinating food crops like almonds, apples, avocados, grapes, and berries – to name just a few. Certifying beehives free of disease before crossing state lines is a very important job. If local honey bees were to come in contact with a sick hive, it could wipe out native populations.
Luckily, our Chief Apiary Inspector Cybil Preston has the help of two four-legged friends that are well-trained in sniffing out AFB. One dog can inspect 100 beehives in just 20 minutes. In the same amount of time, a human inspector could only check about 1 hive. Mack and Tukka save the State of Maryland valuable time and resources.
Human inspectors have to wear bee suits and must open hives to meticulously examine each frame for AFB. Additionally, human inspections can only take place when temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit so that the bees are not agitated and can contain their hive heat.
Fortunately, Mack and Tukka work during cold weather months, typically from November to March, when bees are dormant. This allows inspections to continue when human inspectors cannot. Performing the inspections while bees are less active also helps the dogs avoid bee stings.
During a normal inspection, Cybil will walk Mack or Tukka up to a hive. They’ll sniff the outside of a beehive and determine if AFB lies hidden inside. If they detect AFB, the dogs are trained to point their nose and sit. If not, they move on to the next hive. They are highly efficient and can detect very low doses of the disease. One dog can inspect up to 1,000 hives per month!
During warmer temperatures when Mack and Tukka are off duty, they are by no means slacking off. You can find the duo training with Cybil to make sure their detection skills are still sharp.
Typically, Cybil trains the boys by hiding or throwing toys covered in AFB scent in different directions for the dogs to find. Associating scent detection with play is essential to their training.
Note: AFB is not a threat to canines or humans.
The department’s Apiary Inspection Program has had a disease detection canine on staff since 1982. Shortly after Cybil started her role as the Chief Apiary Inspector, the department’s previous canine and canine handler were ready to retire. As she transitioned into her new position, Cybil began searching for the department’s next bee dog. Serendipitously, she stumbled across a post about Mack in an online bee group she was a part of. Mack, a one-and-a-half-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, was abandoned living in a garage at the time and in desperate need of help. Cybil sprung into action and adopted him right away.
Cybil had other dogs in the past and was experienced in obedience and Good Citizen training. She had yet to train dogs in scent detection.
Seeking help, Cybil turned to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) K-9 Unit Commander Mark Flynn for guidance on scent training. Within 14 weeks, Mark helped Cybil teach Mack how to detect the scent of AFB through drills and games. Mack became certified by DPSCS for AFB detection in October 2015.
Tukka was adopted by Cybil in May of 2018 through the same process. He is a six-year-old Springer Spaniel with lots of energy. After 4 months of training, Tukka was certified as an AFB detector in December 2018.
Mack and Tukka are currently the only two certified AFB detector dogs in the United States. Just last year, Mack and Tukka inspected 2,100 hives and found no presence of AFB.
Mack and Tukka are the department’s local celebrities and everyone’s favorite coworkers. Governor Larry Hogan is also a huge fan and even awarded Mack a Governor’s Citation in May 2017 for his service to the state. They’ve hung out several times since and had a recent run-in at the 2019 Maryland State Fair.
Mack and Tukka were also featured on an episode of the Disney+ original show “It’s a Dog’s Life” last summer. The show shares stories of dogs doing incredible things. On season one episode five that premiered on June 12, 2020, Disney legend Bill Farmer, the voice of Goofy and Pluto, interviewed Cybil and tagged along with our two doggy detectives as they performed some inspections.
In 2018, they were highlighted on an episode of the Maryland Public Television show Maryland Farm & Harvest during a special bee-themed episode. Watch their segment here.
In the News…
Mack and Tukka have made headlines over the years. Here, are some of their top mentions:
- New York Times, “With a Sniff and a Signal, These Dogs Hunt Down Threats to Bees,” By: Tejal Rao (July 2018)
- American Kennel Club, “Mack the Bee Dog Sniffs out Trouble in Maryland’s Honeybee Colonies,” By: Stephanie Gibeaul (August 2018)
- NPR, “Keeping Bees Safe: It’s A Ruff Job, But This Doggy Detective Gets It Done,” By: Jodi Helmer (April 2016)
- USA Today, “Furry friends lend humans a helping hand,” By: Melanie D.G. Kaplan (May 2017)
For more updates on Mack and Tukka, be sure to follow them on Twitter @Mackbeedog.
National Dog Day.
As we celebrate National Dog Day, let us recognize the important role Mack and Tukka play in protecting our pollinators and agricultural production.
Nearly one-third of all crops require pollination for growth including most fruits and vegetables. Pollinators like honeybees, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, moths, flies, and other insects help pollinate food crops that we consume. They are responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat.
So let’s give a round of a-paw-lause for the amazing work Mack, Tukka, and Cybil have done to protect honeybee populations not just in Maryland, but all over the country!