Honeybee medicine catching on with veterinarians

When the Food and Drug Administration began requiring veterinary oversight five years ago for antimicrobials used in food-producing animals and also important in human medicine, the agency essentially created a new field of veterinary medicine: honey bee medicine.

Before the implementation of the Veterinary Feed Guidelines in 2017, beekeepers bought colony antimicrobials over the counter. An antimicrobial prescription from a veterinarian is now required. This drug prescription must be issued as part of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. The prescribing veterinarian should know the behavior, biology and diseases of honey bees.

Because of their training in comparative medicine, veterinarians are able to diagnose and treat a wide range of animal diseases. But American and European foulbrood? Colony Collapse Disorder? Varroa mites? Most US veterinary curricula do not cover these major threats to honey bees.

However, that is beginning to change.

dr Terry Ryan Kane inspects one of more than a dozen honey beehives owned by a hobbyist during a beehive visit. (Courtesy of Dr Ryan Kane)

For the past four years, Meghan Milbrath, PhD, has taught honey bee medicine to fourth-year veterinary medicine students at Michigan State University. The three-week elective is designed so that students who complete the course will have the skills and knowledge to conduct hive inspections themselves, said Dr. Milbrath, Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology and Faculty Advisor to the Veterinary College’s Honey Bee Medicine Club.

“I’m really trying to nurture honey bees, so we give them the same moral and ethical considerations that we give other animals,” she said.

To those in Dr. Milbrath’s course topics covered include honey bee biology, the beekeeping industry, disease diagnosis and treatment recommendations. “My main motivation is the fact that beekeepers have a really hard time finding vets who are willing to work with them,” she said.

join the club

The same year the Animal Feed Guidelines went into effect, a small group of veterinarians came together to form the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium, a non-profit organization with the goal of training veterinarians in honey bee medicine.

dr Terry Ryan Kane, one of the HBVC board members, said other ranchers expected the VFD decision, but many beekeepers didn’t expect to be included in the FDA rule. “And because there were so few veterinary beekeepers, we knew our job was cut out for us,” said Dr. Kane, co-editor of the textbook Honey Bee Medicine for the Veterinary Practitioner, published in 2021.

HBVC membership has grown to just over 320; Most are veterinarians, but the consortium also includes students, researchers and beekeepers or beekeepers. The organization has hosted annual conferences, and a number of veterinary colleges have HBVC student chapters with faculty advisors. In addition, the consortium is developing a certification course for veterinarians, which will require 150 hours of training in honey bee medicine.

Consortium members speak at veterinary conferences and are increasingly invited to beekeeping clubs. dr Britteny Kyle, a former HBVC president, says beekeepers are starting to reconcile having to involve veterinarians in their apiaries. Most see vets as a means of acquiring antimicrobials for their hives, but some are beginning to realize that vets offer more than just a prescription. Even veterinarians are beginning to realize this.

Profit margins in the honey industry are small, so large operators need to be convinced that veterinarians are adding value to their business. “Some members of the industry understand that veterinarians are trained in biosecurity, disease management, herd health and toxicology, and we can help improve the health of their colonies,” said Dr. kyle

At the other end of the beekeeping spectrum are the hobbyists or “backyarders” with two or three hives. “They’re more like pet owners,” said Dr. kyle “They’re not trying to make money, they’re just having fun keeping bees. They consider their bees as pets and may be more receptive to a veterinarian helping them keep their colonies healthy.”

species in crisis

One of the more compelling reasons why veterinarians should take a more active role in honeybee medicine is that so many things depend on bee pollination.

Honey bees are essential for pollinating flowering plants, which in turn produce the vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds that humans, wildlife and livestock depend on. “The importance of honeybee pollination to our food security cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Kristen Obbink, public health veterinarian and beekeeper.

“Without honeybees, the fruit and vegetable aisles in your grocery store would be largely empty,” she explained.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that pollination by managed honey bee colonies adds at least $15 billion in value to US agriculture annually through increased yields and quality harvests.

Participants gather around a hive during one of the honey bee labs being offered during the 2018 AVMA Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. The lab was taught at the US Department of Agriculture Bee Research Laboratory by entomologists and beekeepers. (Courtesy of Dr Cynthia Faux)

And yet, honey bees are being decimated by pests, pesticides, disease, habitat loss and climate change. The USDA estimates that the number of managed honey bee colonies has fallen from 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.6 million today.

The lack of veterinarians willing to work in honeybee medicine is a serious problem, said Dr. Milbrath. “If we had a similar crisis in any other animal species, for example if 30% of dogs died or 30% of cattle died every year, people would take care of it.

“The fact is bees are dying at the same rate, many from bacterial diseases, and it’s deeply concerning that more veterinarians aren’t standing up.”

More and more resources are becoming available to veterinarians interested in learning more about honey bee medicine. In addition to the HBVC website and AVMA Guide to Honey Bee Health (PDF), there are textbooks, scientific articles and continuing education events. And many agricultural schools have consultant specialists who work with beekeepers.

dr Kane recommends vets learn more about bees by joining a local bee club or starting a few hives of their own. “The only way we veterinarians really get to know an animal is through working with them, and few animals are more fascinating — or as important — as the honey bee.”