By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Some dogs fetch or roll over on command. Others can sniff out drugs or track the scent of a rabbit. And then there's Klinker. Her talent is a bit more unusual.
The black Labrador retriever, trained late last year, is a key asset in the Maryland Department of Agriculture's strategy to detect diseased bee colonies. Klinker and her handler crisscross the state in search of American foulbrood, the most common and most destructive bacterial disease facing Maryland's honeybees.
"She's our newest employee," said handler William Troup, an apiary inspector based near Hagerstown, Md.
Klinker's workdays often consist of walking along rows of hives, jumping, sniffing and wagging her tail as she goes. When she smells bacteria, she sits.
"When we go out, there's no guarantee we'll find anything," Troup said. "But she knows when we do."
American foulbrood bacteria form microscopic spores that can survive for decades and can spread quickly from hive to hive, killing bee larvae. If the infection is caught early, the hive can be treated with antibiotics. If not, the hive usually must be destroyed, along with any equipment that came into contact with it, a massive financial blow for the beekeeper.
Since the 1970s, U.S. beekeepers have reported a shrinking bee population because of bacteria, disease, pesticides and parasites. Some of those factors might also contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder, an unexplained phenomenon, dating to late 2006, in which worker bees abandon their hive for no known reason.
"If it were not for the honeybees, there would not be enough food on Planet Earth to support life as we know it," said Jerry Fischer, who is in charge of the state's Apiary Inspection Program. "Early detection of the disease by Klinker and Troup will save Maryland beekeepers substantial monetary loss from eradication of diseased bees and destruction of infected equipment."
In the late 1970s, Maryland became the first state to use dogs to detect disease in honeybee colonies, and it is the only state to keep a full-time "bee dog" on its staff. A trained hive-sniffing dog such as Klinker can inspect 100 honeybee colonies in about 45 minutes, far more than humans, who inspect fewer than half that number in a day.
State agriculture officials want no more than one-tenth of 1 percent of Maryland's 9,215 honeybee hives to have the bacteria at any given time. The sooner inspectors find an infection, the sooner spores can be stopped from spreading. Klinker works mostly in fall and winter, when bees are more docile and less likely to sting her nose.
Agriculture officials have considered adding dogs to their staff, including one that could sniff out the emerald ash borer, an exotic beetle whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees and disrupt circulation of water and nutrients.
Klinker, who is 18 months old, is the department's fourth bee dog. She replaced Thorne, an 8-year-old yellow Labrador retriever who retired recently. Troup said Klinker is doing a good job, and she has been rewarded with squeaky toys and head pats. During one of her first inspections, in January, Klinker found a diseased colony that a human inspector had missed.
"She can smell even a little bit," Troup said. "It's really amazing."