Some dogs spot narcotics, some detect bombs. But a dog that sniffs out bee disease?
Meet Max, a yellow Labrador retriever that does just that. Max is an undisputed master of American foulbrood, a bacterial pestilence that is the scourge of bees and the Maryland beehive industry from Cumberland to Cambridge.
Max is a 3-year-old exuberant 80-pounder trained to ferret out the destructive disease, which saves the human detectives with him a lot of time and energy.
An unpaid but well-fed employe of the Maryland Department of Agriculture here, Max is the only beehive-sniffer in Maryland and is believed by state officials to be one of only two dogs in the country trained in the art. The other is a German shepherd in Michigan.
Maryann Tomasko, 26, Max's handler and general manager, is an apiary inspector for the state who accompanies the dog on its rounds in the Baltimore-Washington region.
The process is simple. Max, held on a leather leash by Tomasko, sniffs from hive to hive.
When Max detects the characteristic odor of foulbrood, the dog sits down next to the suspect hive. Then the human inspectors take over, disassemble the hive and remove the diseased portion.
Max's reward? A tennis ball to chase.
"He loves to retrieve tennis balls," says Tomasko, pulling a well-chewed ball from her pocket and tossing it for Max to scramble after.
" . . . Retrievers are great for the job. They want to work and like to get a reward for their work. Retrieving is their reward."
State agriculture officials view Max's arrival on the apiary scene as a boon for the beehive industry. Max cuts short the tedious and cumbersome process of inspectors having to disassemble the state's 14,000 commercial and noncommercial beehives to find the 1 1/2 to 2 percent that are diseased.
Bee are valuable in Maryland not only for the honey and beeswax they produce but also for the pollination service they provide for the state's many fruit and vegetable farms in the spring and summer.
Professional beekeepers rent thousands of hives to Maryland farmers each year to help increase yields.
Foulbrood is a highly contagious bacterium that kills bees in their larval stage and leaves a distinctive dark brown scaly cap or cover over the larval cells of the beehive. It is easy to see, Tomasko said.
But it usually infects the lower section of the hive, the so-called brood chamber, and inspectors have to remove the four or five wooden frames forming the top of the hive to get to it, Tomasko said.
The frames, often filled with honey, can weigh 30 to 40 pounds each, and the manual disassembling process is slow.
Once detected, the diseased portion of the hive must be burned or fumigated.
Max's nose makes hive-by-hive disassembly unnecessary, Tomasko said, thus speeding up inspections and reducing opportunities for "robber" bees to raid diseased hives and spread the disease.
"To catch the disease sooner and stop it from spreading, that's a great saving to the industry ," Tomasko said.
Ultimately, she hopes the agriculture department will be able to three of four years it now takes to inspect all beehives in the state in half the time it now takes -- three to four years.
Tomasko, who has been with the agriculture department for 1 1/2 years, said she got the idea of training a dog to detect foulbrood after reading about the one in Michigan.
A family in Baltimore County donated Max to the cause, she said, and last summer the dog began a 360-hour course in foulbrood detection at the Baltimore County Police Department's K-9 training facility in Catonsville.
Max graduated earlier this month with flying colors after a number of sessions learning how to distinguish coffee cans filled with foulbrood from "dummy" cans and going into the field to work with real beehives.
"The whole trick was to get him to sit down each time he smelled the foulbrood and associate the smell with the reward of the tennis ball," Tomasko said.
Max occasionally gets stung by a bee and will shy away for a while.
"He gets discouraged . . . but he always comes back," she added. ". . . . He's very loyal."
When not working, Max lives with Tomasko at her Severna Park, Md., home. "All he costs the state," Tomasko said, "is two pounds of dog food a day and a can of tennis balls."