Preliminary survey results of bee colonies released on Tuesday point to the unabated spread of a disease, American foulbrood (AFB), throughout the Western Cape and beyond.

AFB is an infectious disease found in honey bees which attacks their larvae and is capable of destroying entire colonies in a year. Early results showed that more than 80 percent of the 45 samples tested came back positive for the disease. Officials are still waiting for more than 450 samples to be tested.

"It's looking increasingly unlikely that eradication and containment will be possible. It's looking increasingly likely that we have a regionwide, even countrywide, problem," said Mike Allsopp, a honeybee researcher with the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC) in Stellenbosch.

The search for the disease in all of the Western Cape and a part of the Eastern Cape is being conducted by the Department of Agriculture in partnership with the ARC and the South African Bee Industry Organisation (Sabio). Officials expect to have the complete results in two weeks.

Chairman of Sabio in Cape Town, John Moodie, said: "The decision we have to make now is whether to continue with the eradication process."

Burning infected hives is considered the best way to stop the spread of AFB. Moodie estimates that 200 colonies with AFB have been destroyed so far.

Allsopp said that eradication is only a reasonable response if the infection rate is under 60 percent. "Otherwise, the economic and environmental ramifications of destroying all those colonies are too great," said Allsopp.

The rapid spread of AFB, which was found in South Africa for the first time in February, threatens more than just the honey-producing industry. In 2008, a study for the National Agricultural Marketing Council estimated that commercial honey bee colonies add between R400-million and R1.6-billion in value each year to the deciduous fruit tree industry.