Do Bees Need Doctors?
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By Michele Ackerman If you own farm animals, it is a given you will call on a veterinarian at some point. But what about your honeybees? Do they need a veterinarian?
If you need to treat your bees with prescription (Rx) drugs, they are kin to your chickens and cows. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classified them as livestock in 2017 and placed them under the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) provisions. This is because products like honey, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly enter the food chain.
The statute means beekeepers must get a script or VFD from a licensed veterinarian before drugs can be administered.
The federal government acted to address concerns about antibiotic resistance from developing in bacteria. By bringing their use under the supervision of licensed veterinarians, greater accountability in the food chain is delivered.
Remember that antibiotics — the sole prescription drugs used by beekeepers today—are used to manage bacterial diseases, not viruses or parasites like the varroa destructor.
Antibiotics: Yes, or No?
Beekeepers use antibiotics to treat two diseases: American foulbrood (AFB) and European foulbrood (EFB). Both attack larvae and get their name from the rancid smell that arises from decaying brood.
AFB is caused by Paenibacillus larvae, a spore-forming bacteria that typically attacks capped larvae. It is spread when bees “drift” from infected colonies to healthy ones. AFB can cause death of the colony in just three weeks and remain viable in honey, wax, and used equipment for more than 70 years.
A spotty brood pattern characterizes AFB; sunken or perforated, greasy cappings; brown “gooey” larvae; and larval scale (desiccated pupa on the bottom of the cell wall).
Several tests can be used to confirm AFB in the field, including the matchstick/rope test, Holst milk test, and ELISA test from a bee supply company. The USDA Bee Research Laboratory will also test samples for free.
Organizations like the Honey Bee Health Coalition urge beekeepers to “burn and bury” infected hardware or work with their state apiary inspector on the approved protocol. It is impossible to eradicate AFB from hives. Antibiotics don’t kill spores of Paenibacillus larvae; instead, they prevent replication in the vegetative state and re-infection from adult bees after the affected equipment is removed. In other words, they don’t cure AFB; they simply mask it.
Though less virulent, EFB can weaken a colony and make it vulnerable to other stressors that lead to death. Caused by the non-spore forming Melissococcus pluton, it is transmitted through bee bread, nectar, and honey fed to young larvae. EFB typically kills a larva within 4 to 5 days before the cell is capped. In severe cases, the larva may die after the cell is capped, thereby mimicking AFB.
Telltale symptoms of EFB are yellow or brown colored larvae, larvae twisted in cells, commonly called “the stomachache position,” and rubbery scale.
The only available test for EFB is a diagnostic kit available from bee supply companies.
A colony infected with EFB can clear during a steady nectar flow and with special care from the beekeeper. Antibiotics are recommended only as a last resort.
Calling the Doctor
If you want a veterinarian to diagnose and treat your bees, understand there is a tenet relationship that closely resembles human medicine.
Before a veterinarian can prescribe antibiotics, a Veterinary Client Patient Relationship (VCPR) must be established. Essentially, the veterinarian assumes responsibility for making medical judgments and being available for follow-up. The beekeeper agrees to follow the instructions of the veterinarian.
Such a relationship can exist only when the veterinarian is acquainted with the keeping and care of the bees through an examination. In almost all cases, the veterinarian must visit an apiary and inspect the bees.
If you have a vet for pets or other farm animals, calling on them is a good place to start.
When the VCPR is established, the veterinarian will determine whether antibiotics are needed and write a prescription or VFD. Three microbials are available: oxytetracycline, tylosin titrate, and lincomycin hydrochloride. Beekeepers have reported increasing resistance to oxytetracycline and rarely use lincomycin.
Prescription vs. VFD
A prescription is a veterinarian’s order for the preparation and administration of a drug. It has several parts, including the name of the drug, quantity, and directions for administration. A VFD allows veterinarians to legally prescribe the administration of a drug in ways other than what is listed on the label, including in or on feed. Though similar, they are distinct legal categories. Drugs that require the oversight of a veterinarian are prescription drugs, and drugs that are administered through feed and require the oversight of a veterinarian are VFD drugs.
A VFD looks much like a script, with the name and address of the veterinarian and beekeeper, bees to be treated, drug name and concentration, feeding directions, withdrawal time, and expiration date.
The veterinarian, beekeeper, and distributor must retain a copy of the VFD for two years. Records for prescriptions vary by state.
Treating the Bees
Beekeepers can purchase prescriptions from the veterinarian, a clinic, or a pharmacy, depending on the state. VFDs can be purchased from a feed mill where antibiotics are mixed with feed for direct application.
In most cases, both a prescription and VFD are mixed in sugar and fed to bees.
Beekeepers must become educated on foulbrood and do their part to reduce its prevalence, including being responsible caretakers. Many states require them to report to the state apiary inspection service when they suspect a hive is carrying AFB or EFB.
Also, remember that many practicing veterinarians have little to no experience with honeybees. When you summon the doctor, your ladies may be their first honeybee patients.
With the new VFD rule and the rise of backyard beekeeping, that is changing.
Conferences are routinely held to educate veterinarians. New medical textbooks are being written, and honeybee student chapters are sprouting in vet schools across the country. As well the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium is rolling out a new certification program that aims to link beekeepers with local veterinarians.
This is great news for bees because veterinarians are trained to look holistically at animal health to find solutions. Far beyond AFB and EFB, they are masters at addressing all infectious agents, like parasites and viral and fungal diseases, and can assess nutrition and environmental stressors.
Learning will take time. Be patient and remember we have the same goal — to improve honeybee health and ensure human medicine works for humans when needed.
We may find we have new partners who are as delighted to work with our bees as we are.
- List of state inspectors from Apiary Inspectors of America
- List of VCPR requirements by state
- List of medically important antimicrobials for bees
- Honey Bee Health Coalition guidelines for AFB and EFB
- AFB information (including many photos) from Penn State University
- Instructions for mailing samples to USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory for AFB diagnosis
- Honey Bees: A Guide for Veterinarians (American Veterinary Medical Association)
- Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium (an organization to link beekeepers and veterinarians)
MICHELE ACKERMAN has been tending honeybees in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, since 2017. She started with a single Langstroth hive of Carniolan bees and has grown the apiary to five hives. She offers raw honey and other bee products through Blondie’s Bees & Balms and pens a personal blog called The Bad Beekeeper. She also tends a garden that includes about 150 varieties of trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals and is a competitive bodybuilder.
Originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.