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Journal of Apiculture - Vol. 36 , No. 2

[ Original research article ]
Journal of Apiculture - Vol. 36, No. 2, pp.47-54
Abbreviation: J. Apic.
ISSN: 1225-0252 (Print)
Print publication date 30 Jun 2021
Received 30 Apr 2021 Revised 02 Jul 2021 Accepted 03 Jul 2021

Susceptibility of Apis mellifera Larvae of Different Ages to Infection from Melissococcus plutonius, an European Foulbrood Disease-causing Pathogen
A-Tai Truong1, 2 ; Seonmi Kim1 ; Mi-Sun Yoo2 ; Yun Sang Cho2 ; ByoungSu Yoon1, *
1Department of Life Science, College of Fusion Science, Kyonggi University, Suwon 16227, Republic of Korea
2Parasitic and Honeybee Disease Laboratory, Bacterial and Parasitic Disease Division, Department of Animal & Plant Health Research, Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency, Gimcheon 39660, Republic of Korea

Correspondence to : * E-mail:

Funding Information ▼


European foulbrood (EFB) is a bacterial disease caused by Melissococcus plutonius. The pathogen is lethal to the infected larvae and the decomposition of dead larvae results in the development of a foul smell. This study aimed to evaluate the susceptibility of different Apis mellifera larva stages to M. plutonius in the apiary and the response of the honeybee colony to pathogen exposure. In total, 1069 larvae of different ages were artificially infected with M. plutonius. The larvae were allowed to be naturally fed by the nursing bees in the hive. The eggs, as well as the first instar and second instar larvae, were completely removed from the comb on day 7 post-infection. The survival rate of third instar larvae was 1.53% upon exposure to the pathogen (pathogen number: 2.67×106 to 2.67×101). The survival rate of the larvae increased to 37.39 and 59.09% of day 4 and day 6 larvae, respectively. These survival larvae developed without exhibiting any symptoms of EFB. However, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) detection showed that these larvae carried a large amount of M. plutonius, and could be a potential source of EFB disease in the colony. The result of this study could be helpful for understanding the progress of disease development when honeybee colony is exposed to the pathogen in natural condition, by which a strategy for efficient diagnosis and treatment of EFB could be established.

Keywords: Melissococcus plutonius, Apiary infection, Larva ages, European foulbrood, Apis mellifera


European foulbrood (EFB), a bacterial disease that affects the honeybees, is caused by Melissococcus plutonius, a gram-positive bacterium (Bailey, 1983). The EFB disease, which has spread globally, has an economic impact on apiculture (Forsgren, 2010). The EFB disease is transmitted via the feces of infected bees living in the hive (Bailey, 1960). The color of the comb containing the infected larvae changes from pearly white to yellow, which is mainly due to the dead larvae, and subsequently to brown and grayish black (Bailey, 1961). In some cases, the decomposition of high numbers of dead larvae in the combs contributes to the foul or sour smell (Forsgren, 2010).

Various laboratory methods have been developed to identify and quantify M. plutonius, including cultivation, microscopy, and PCR-based detection methods (Govan et al., 1998; Djordjevic et al., 1998; Roetschi et al., 2008; Budge et al., 2010; Forsgren et al., 2013). In the field, M. plutonius is detected by observing the dead larvae or by performing lateral flow immunoassay using the specific monoclonal antibody (Tomkies et al., 2009).

Previous studies have artificially infected the honeybee larvae with M. plutonius in vitro to evaluate the virulence of geographical strains (Charrière et al., 2011) and different genotype variants of M. plutonius (Nakamura et al., 2016). Additionally, some studies have evaluated the infection dose and the correlation between the number of M. plutonius and the infection rate in vitro (Giersch et al., 2010). However, there is no study has been conducted in vivo to understand the development of EFB disease when honeybee expose to the pathogen in apiary condition.

Accordingly, this study was conducted to evaluate the survival rate of M. plutonius infected A. mellifera larvae in natural condition. Different larval ages were artificially infected with M. plutonius in vivo to analyze the development of EFB disease and the response of the colony against the pathogen. Additionally, an efficient method for quantitative detection of M. plutonius was also developed.

1. Bacterial strain

The M. plutonius strain used in this study was isolated from honeybee larvae and was deposited at the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) (ATCC 35311) (Bailey and Collins, 1982).

2. Culturing Melissococcus plutonius

The brain heart infusion (KHBHI) liquid medium (Table 1) and agar solid media (Table 2) were used for culturing M. plutonius in the laboratory. The anaerobic culture conditions were generated using BD BBLTM GasPakTM jar and BD GasPakTM EZ Anaerobic Gas generating Pouch System with Indicator (Becton Dickinson, USA). For the liquid culture of M. plutonius, 50 mL of the KHBHI medium inoculated with bacteria was transferred to a 50-mL conical tube. Next, the tube and two gas generating packs were placed in the jar and the cap was quickly closed. The bacterial culture was incubated at 35℃ for 7 days. For the solid culture of M. plutonius, the bacteria were spread-plated on the KHBHI agar plate. Next, the plates were placed in the jar with the gas packs. The cultural conditions for solid culture were similar to those of the liquid culture.

Table 1. 
Composition of the brain heart infusion (KHBHI) liquid medium
Composition Amount
Soluble starch (Wako Pure Chemical Industries, Osaka, Japan) 10 g
BactoTM Brain heart infusion (Becton, Dickinson, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, U.S) 37 g
KH2PO4 (BioBasic, Canada) 20.4 g
Distilled water Volume made up to 1 L

Table 2. 
Composition of the brain heart infusion (KHBHI) agar medium
Composition Amount
Soluble starch (Wako Pure Chemical Industries, Osaka, Japan) 10 g
DifcoTM Brain heart infusion agar (Becton, Dickinson, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, U.S) 52 g
KH2PO4 (BioBasic, Canada) 20.4 g
Distilled water Volume made up to 1 L

3. Microscopic enumeration

The quantification of the M. plutonius number was performed under a light microscope (Primo Star binocular microscope, ZEISS, Jena, Germany) at 1000× magnification. The counting was performed in a microscopic field with an area of 0.05×0.05 mm2. The counting was independently repeated 3 times and 20 areas were counted each time (total number of areas counted: 60 areas). The number of cells in one milliliter of suspension was calculated using the following formula:

Number of cell / mL
 =Total cells / (60×0.005 cm×0.005 cm×0.01 cm)

4. DNA extraction

The DNA was isolated from M. plutonius using the DNeasy Blood & Tissue Kits (QIAGEN, Hilden, Germany), following the manufacturer’s instructions for isolating DNA from gram-positive bacteria. The bacterial cells were harvested by centrifuging the culture medium at 13,000×g for 1 min. The supernatant was discarded and the cell pellet was incubated with enzymatic lysis buffer comprising Tris-Cl (20 mM, pH 8.0), sodium EDTA (2 mM), Triton X-100 (1.2%), and lysozyme (20 mg/mL) at 37℃ for 30 min. Next, the cell lysate was incubated with proteinase K (25 μL) and lysis buffer (200 μL) at 56℃ for 30 min. The isolated DNA concentration was determined using a biophotometer (Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany). To isolate the DNA from the infected honeybee samples, the larvae or pupae were ground in a 1.5-mL Eppendorf tube using a micropestle. Next, 100 μL of the lysis solution was transferred to a new tube and centrifuged at 13,000×g for 1 min. The supernatant was removed and the cell pellet was suspended in 180 μL of enzymatic lysis buffer. Next, the DNA was isolated following the same steps as those used for the isolation of DNA from pure bacterial culture.

5. Real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)

The molecular detection and quantification of M. plutonius were performed in GENECHECKER ultra-rapid RT-PCR (UR RT-PCR; Genesystem Co., Ltd., Daejeon, Korea) using the premix 2X Rapi Mix (Genesystem Co.) containing SYBR green, a fluorescent dye for PCR detection. M. plutonius was detected using specific primers for the 16S ribosomal RNA gene, EF-DC-F1: 5′-AAG AGT AAC TGT TTT CCT CG-3′ and EF-DC-R1: 5′-TCC TCT TCT GCA CTC AAG TCT TC-3′ (Wang et al., 2016). The PCR conditions were as follows: 95℃ for 30 s, followed by 50 cycles 95℃ for 4 s, 53℃ for 4 s, and 72℃ for 4 s.

To calculate the initial DNA copy number, the recombinant DNA was serially diluted 10-fold (2.1×108 to 2.1×100 copies/μL). Next, 1 μL of each concentration was used for RT-PCR analysis. The standard linear regression representing the correlation between initial DNA copy and the corresponding threshold cycle (Ct) of amplification was established.

6. Artificially infecting honeybee larvae with M. plutonius

Total 1069 larvae of different ages of A. mellifera from three different honeycombs of the same hive were used for three independent infections. The first and second infection were done to evaluated the susceptibility of larvae of different ages (n=872) to the pathogen in an apiary, the second infection was done one week after the first infection. Other 197 larvae were used in the third infection one month after the first infection observe the response of A. mellifera colony to EFB pathogen and the health condition of the colony. The larval age was identified based on the shape and size of larvae in the cells according to the method of Human et al. (2013) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. 
Identification of larval age. The number “0” indicates the egg of honeybee, while the numbers 1~5 denote first to fifth larval instar stages (corresponding to the days 1~5 larvae), respectively. The number “6” indicates the day 6 larvae that are undergoing the process of capping. The white bar in the bottom right corner of each figure represents 1 cm.

For artificial infection of M. plutonius to the larvae, the bacterial cells were harvested by centrifuging the culture medium at 13,000×g for 30 s. The pellet was suspended in PBS solution and the bacterial concentration was determined by microscopic count. The bacterial suspension was serially diluted (1.335×106 to 1.335×101 cells/μL) and 2 μL of different serially diluted bacterial samples (corresponding to the bacterial numbers of 2.67×106 to 2.67×101) were added to each cell of the comb containing larvae of different ages using a multichannel pipette. The images of the combs containing the infected larvae were captured before infection and after the inoculation period. The artificial infection was performed within 30~45 min at room temperature. The combs with larvae were placed back into the hive and the larvae were allowed to be fed by the nurse bees. The infection was observed at day 4 and analyzed at day 7 post-infection.

1. Artificially infecting honeybee larvae with M. plutonius

In the first two infections, the larvae in the infected and surrounding areas were removed from the combs by nursing bees from day 4 to 7 post-infection. Only the cells with healthy larvae underwent capping and the larvae developed into the pupa stage. The capped cells were unsealed and the pupae were observed without any symptoms of EFB disease (Fig. 2). However, after the third infection adult bees in the infected colony were less active than those after the first two infections, and the ability of the adult bees to detect and remove the infected larvae decreased. Thus, only the larvae in the infected areas were removed on day 7 post-infection, whereas those in the surrounding areas were not removed. Although the symptom of EFB was not clearly identified in the hive, the PCR analysis of the healthy pupae and the larvae collected from the surrounding areas revealed the presence of M. plutonius (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2. 
Artificially infecting honeybee larvae with Melissococcus plutonius. The comb with the larvae used for the second infection is shown. The larvae of different ages in the four areas (indicated by numbers 1~4) were exposed to the pathogen at a concentration of 2.67×106. The larvae in area 4 were exposed to different bacterial numbers (2.67×106 to 2.67×101) (A). After one week, the infected larvae were eliminated by the nursing bee, which resulted in empty cells. The cells containing live larvae underwent capping (B). The capped pupae were unsealed to observe pupal health (C).

Fig. 3. 
Detection of Melissococcus plutonius from the infected larvae and pupae. The comb with the larvae used for the third infection is shown. The capped pupae exhibiting no symptoms of European foulbrood (EFB) disease in the infected area (the red line area) and the larvae in the surrounding areas were collected for the detection of M. plutonius by ultra-rapid real-time polymerase chain reaction (A). The amplification curves and melting curves revealed that M. plutonius was detected in the sample DNA (S). “P” is positive control containing 108 copies of M. plutonius recombinant DNA. “N” is the negative control without DNA template (B).

2. Survival rate of infected larvae of different ages

The eggs and days 1~6 larvae (n=552) in one comb that was infected twice were selected to calculate the effect of exposure to 2.67×106 bacteria/cell on the survival rate. The number of surviving pupae in each age was counted on day 7 post-infection. The numbers of eggs, first instar, and second instar larvae removed after 7 days were 49, 4, 58, respectively. Of the 261 third instar larvae assessed, 4 larvae (1.53%) were alive on day 7 post-infection. The survival rate was high among the older larvae. The survival rates of 115 fourth instar larvae, 43 fifth larvae, 22 sixth instar larvae were evaluated, which revealed that 37.39, 46.51, and 59.09% of fourth, fifth, and sixth instar larvae developed into capped pupae, respectively.

3. Infecting honeybee larvae with different pathogen numbers

The susceptibility of larvae to the disease was dependent on the larval age and not on the concentration of bacteria. The survival rate of larvae present in the areas treated with a low number of bacteria (2.67×105 to 2.67×101) did not increase. The exposure of larvae to the pathogen at all tested concentrations markedly decreased the survival rates of first, second, and third instar larvae. The survival rates of fourth, fifth, and sixth instar larvae exposed to a high number of bacteria were higher than those of the younger larvae (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. 
Infecting honeybee larvae with different pathogen numbers. Five areas (64 larvae in each area) used for the second infection are shown. The larvae were artificially infected with different numbers of M. plutonius (2.67×105 to 2.67×101 bacteria/larva) (A). On day 7 post-infection, the infected larvae were eliminated from the comb and the surviving larvae developed into healthy pupae.

4. Relationship between quantitative estimation of pathogen counts by microscopy and RT-PCR

It is difficult to quantify the bacteria in the infected sample by microscopic counting due to the small size of bacteria and low purity of sample. In contrast, the qPCR analysis is highly rapid and sensitive for bacterial quantification. The limit of detection of recombinant DNA was 21 copies. The operation time of the UR RT-PCR system was 23 min 30 s for 50 cycles. The standard linear regression equation for the correlation between initial DNA copy and threshold cycle was y= -3.3584x+39.522; R2=0.9952 (where y and x were threshold cycle and log10 (initial DNA copy), respectively).

The correlation between molecular and microscopic counts was also established using pure culture bacteria. The bacterial number was calculated by microscopic count in a bacterial culture with a concentration of 1.59×108 cells/mL. The bacterial suspension was serially diluted 10-fold from 1.59×108 to 1.59×103 cells/mL. Next, 1 mL of each concentration was used for DNA isolation and calculation of DNA copy number by RT-PCR. The sample DNA copy numbers ranged from 4.74×108±1.56×108 to 4.22×103±1.43×103 copies (Table 3). The relationship between the results of two counting methods was represented by the linear equation y=1.0523x-0.113; R2=0.9868 (where x and y are log10 number of the bacterial cell and DNA copy, respectively) (Fig. 5).

Table 3. 
Quantification of Melissococcus plutonius by microscopy and real-time polymerase chain reaction
Microscopic count (cell) 1.59×108 1.59×107 1.59×106 1.59×105 1.59×104 1.59×103
Molecular count (DNA copy) 4.74×108

Fig. 5. 
Relationship between molecular count and microscopic count for the quantification of Melissococcus plutonius. Fluorescent curves show the amplification from DNA template that was isolated from 1.59×108 to 1.59×103 cells of M. plutonius, which are indicated by the numbers 8-3, respectively. “P” and “N” indicate positive control (recombinant DNA) and negative control (without DNA template), respectively (A). The relationship between the cell number and DNA copy number is represented by the linear regression (B).


A healthy colony can detect and remove the infected larvae upon artificial infection with M. plutonius to prevent the outbreak of EFB disease. This result is consistent with that of the previous reports (Baily, 1960; OIE, 2018). However, repeating the infection for the third time within approximately 1 month decreased the colony health as evidenced by less active adult bees and the deposition of infected larvae. The number of bacteria infecting the honeybees in the natural environment can be lesser than that used to artificially infect the honeybees in this study. Therefore, M. plutonius may be present in the colony, which may not exhibit any symptoms of EFB (Budge et al., 2010). Additionally, M. plutonius infection creates a favorable condition for the secondary infections from pathogens, such as Achromobacter eurydice (Forsgren, 2010; Erler et al., 2018).

The healthy colony was infected with different concentrations of bacteria to identify the minimal concentration of bacteria that can cause the disease in a healthy colony. However, the larvae in the surrounding areas, which were not exposed to bacteria, were also removed after the infection. This indicated that the evaluation of infection with different concentrations of bacteria in an active honeybee colony is laborious as the bacteria spread to different areas of the comb through the nurse bee during the feeding and hygiene process. Therefore, the evaluation could be only conducted at the colony level where different isolated colonies can be exposed to known numbers of bacteria. However, the limitation of this strategy is that a large number of healthy colonies must be sacrificed to obtain accurate results. Therefore, the evaluation can be performed only in laboratory-reared larvae.

Microscopy can aid in the diagnosis of M. plutonius from the brood and in counting the pure culture bacteria (Hornitzky and Wilson, 1989; Hornitzky and Smith, 1998; Forsgren et al., 2013). However, the quantification of bacteria from the infected sample is laborious due to the low purity of the sample. Furthermore, the cultivation and plate count method can be also used for determining the viable bacterial cell count. However, the plate count method has low sensitivity (Djordjevic et al., 1998; Hornitzky and Smith, 1998; Forsgren, 2010). Additionally, the bacterial cells tend to cluster and form a chain-like phenotype. Each chain comprising several bacteria can form only one colony. Thus, the counting based on the colony-forming unit on the culture plate may result in the underestimation of the infection or bacterial concentration. Alternatively, EFB can be diagnosed by molecular detection using RT-PCR even in the absence of any infection symptom (Forsgren, 2010). The RT-PCR analysis enables rapid and sensitive detection and quantification of M. plutonius. Based on the correlation between microscopic count and molecular count, the DNA copy number can be converted into the bacterial number, which is useful to evaluate the development of bacteria in infected honeybee, and could be applied in evaluation of drug efficiency for EFB disease treatment.

The honeybee colony was artificially infected with M. plutonius to understand the EFB disease development and response of honeybee to the pathogen to prevent the outbreak of EFB. The susceptibility of larvae of different ages to the pathogen evaluated at the colony level. Furthermore, UR RT-PCR was identified as a sensitive and rapid method for the quantitative detection of EFB pathogen. This method is an important tool for evaluating the growing rate of bacteria in larvae of different ages, as well as the effectiveness of drug treatment.


This work was supported by Korea institute of Planning and Evaluation for Technology in Food, Agriculture and Forestry (IPET, No 318093-03). Also this work was supported by Rural Development Administration (PJ015778022021).

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