The Veterinarian's Role in Taking Care of Bees

Gillian Kruskall, DVM, VCA Brookline Animal Hospital, Brookline, Massachusetts

July 2018|Our Profession|Peer Reviewed

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The Veterinarian's Role in Taking Care of Bees

Honey bee populations are rapidly diminishing. The cause is not fully understood, but pesticides, pathogens, and the shift from diverse meadows to monoculture agriculture are all suspected to contribute to the honey bee decline.1,2

Bees, which are classified by the US government as food-producing animals and essential pollinators, account for nearly $15 billion dollars in annual agricultural value.1,3,4 In addition to crop pollination, they are responsible for the collection of pollen and the production of honey, propolis, royal jelly, beeswax, and venom. (See We Have Bees to Thank.)

In January 2017, amid growing concerns about antibiotic resistance, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented regulations stating that medically important antimicrobial drugs used in or on animal feed require a written statement from a licensed veterinarian.3,5 These statements, known as Veterinary Feed Directives (VFDs), require specific instructions for hive location and contents, type and method of drug administration, expiration dates, and withdrawal times (ie, the amount of time that must lapse before any bee products can be consumed).6 Extra-label drug use is prohibited.3,7

We Have Bees to Thank

  • Bee pollen: The substance gathered by bees, stored in the cells, and used as a primary protein source. It can be found in some nutritional supplements available over-the-counter. 
  • Beeswax: The substance produced by worker bees to create honeycomb. Beeswax is used for candles, skincare products, and medications.
  • Honey: The sweet substance produced through the enzymatic conversion of nectar and stored in the hive. Honey is best-known as a sweetener, but it has many medicinal uses, including antimicrobial properties used in wound healing.
  • Propolis: The resinous material gathered by bees from leaf buds and woody plants. Propolis is used as a sealant within the hive, in some human food, wax, and medical products. 
  • Royal jelly: The nutrient-rich secretion from worker bee glands that is fed to larvae during the first few days of development. Royal jelly is then fed solely to future queens. It is sold as a dietary supplement.
  • Venom: The secretion that bees emit through their stinger when threatened. Bee venom therapy is currently being studied for its benefits in the treatment of arthritis and other painful medical conditions.

Veterinarians to the Rescue

These new regulations mean that beekeepers who once accessed certain antibiotics over the counter may begin asking for VFDs from their local veterinarians. This will give veterinarians a unique opportunity to help a threatened species and support a vital contributor to US agriculture. (See How to Write a VFD.)

How to Write a VFD

Veterinarians must have an extensive understanding of the species they are caring for, including a working knowledge of beekeeping and normal hives, to ensure appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Some diseases require short-term medications; depending on state laws, others (eg, American Foulbrood [AFB]) require burning the hive and its components. (See Laws About Bees and Figures 1, 2, and 3.) 

Veterinarians also need to establish valid veterinary‒client‒patient relationships (VCPRs) with an on-site inspection of an apiary and the affected hive(s).8 A VCPR requires “sufficient knowledge of the patient by virtue of patient examination and/or visits to the facility where patient is managed,”9 with follow-up as necessary. Note that some states have additional requirements for a VCPR; these requirements can be found on the FDA’s website. (See Laws About Bees). 

After inspection, samples of adult bees and/or beeswax comb can be sent to the Beltsville Bee Laboratory in Maryland to be examined for pests (eg, Varroa mites), as well as fungal and bacterial diseases (eg, AFB or European Foulbrood [EFB]). (See Resources.) Examinations currently are free.

When a disease has been confirmed, the veterinarian can write a VFD and medication can be accessed from an approved feed mill. (See Resources.)

Hive Inspection

Many steps are involved in hive inspection, and the veterinarian will likely field a number of questions from the beekeeping client. Here are the most common questions, with answers. 

What is a hive inspection?

An inspection is the on-site evaluation of a hive and its inner components to ensure a healthy population of bees, a productive queen, and ample stores of nutrients. (See Figures 1, 2, and 3.)

What tools are needed?

A veterinarian will need a hive tool and access to a smoker, and be ready to collect and package samples as needed.

What safety equipment should be available?

  • A bee suit or a jacket with a veil, boots, and gloves should be worn to ensure safety during the inspection. 
  • Personal disinfectants should be used before and after inspection to avoid risk of transmitting disease to other sites. 
  •  An emergency kit with an epinephrine autoinjector should always be readily available in case of allergic reactions to bee stings. 

Which medications require a VFD?

  • Oxytetracycline, which is used to control EFB, is currently the only medication that requires a VFD. 
  • Lincomycin and tylosin are used to control EFB in some circumstances but need a written prescription rather than a VFD.

How are medications administered to the hive?

Oxytetraycline can be administered in a patty formulation or mixed in sugar syrup. Refer to the labels for formulations and instructions.

What is the withdrawal period before clients can resume consuming bee products?

Most manufacturers recommend removal of the medication at least 6 weeks before the honey flow. Check the formulated medication label to ensure appropriate withdrawal times. 

How can the owner be involved during inspection?

Ideally, owners should handle their own hives and frames to avoid damage or disease transmission.

What should be looked for during an inspection?

The overall hive and the individual boxes and frames should be examined for the following: 

  • Hives: Bees’ overall temperament; signs of wear or damage to the boxes; external presence of watery brown diarrhea; presence of strange odors  
  • Queen: Presence of the queen; eggs in the cells of the frames; signs (eg, new queen cells) the queen is being replaced
  • Brood pattern: A pattern that is healthy or unhealthy (eg, spotty with many empty cells, only occasional eggs or larvae, no eggs at all, discolored cells, many uncapped or perforated cells) 
  • Larvae: Appearance (eg, white, glistening, and C-shaped larvae; discolored and deceased larvae)
  • Workers: Health of the population (eg, large numbers of deceased bees in or around the hive), disease signs (eg, deformed wings)
  • Food sources: Sufficient amounts of pollen, nectar, and capped honey in storage

What are the different signs of AFB and EFB?

AFB

  • Life stage: Larvae die after the cells have already been capped (ie, sealed) for the period of transformation to pupa
  • Smell: Foul, rotting odor
  • Larvae: Uneven, spotty brood pattern; larvae in cells are coffee-brown in color and some have protruding tongues 
  • Cells/scales: Sealed/perforated, sometimes dark chocolate brown in color, sunken cell cappings, hardened, brown to black scales can be found on the cell bottom
  • Probing: At least 2 cm of roping, sticky material remains when drawn out of the cell on a probe10

EFB

  • Life stage: Larvae die before the cells are capped (ie, sealed) for the period of transformation to pupa
  • Smell: Sour, fish-like odor
  • Larvae: Uneven brood pattern, discolored and deflated, gray/whitish yellow to brown in color, visible twisted tracheal tubes
  • Cells/scales: Brown to black rubbery scales at the cell bottom
  • Probing: Less than 1.5 cm of roping material remains when drawn out of the cell on a probe11

Which samples should be collected if disease is suspected?

  • Bees: At least 100 dying or recently deceased bees that have been soaked in 70% ethyl, methyl, or isopropyl alcohol and put in leak-proof containers
  • Comb: A segment with no honey at least 2 inches square placed in a paper bag or loosely wrapped in a paper towel or newspaper and packed in a box  
  • Probe: The probe used to examine diseased larvae should also be wrapped in paper
  • Send samples to the Bee Research Laboratory in Maryland.

What follow-up is required?

Follow up with the client to ensure the disease has resolved

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“Bee” Involved

Following are some of the many ways veterinarians can get involved in beekeeping.

Join Organizations

  • Sign up with local beekeeping clubs, many of which provide introductory courses in beekeeping as well as mentorship programs.

Become a “Newbee”

  • Establish your own hives. The more hands-on experience you have working with bees, the better you will be able to recognize normal and sick hives.

Communicate & Collaborate

  • Get in touch with the local apiary inspector and discuss protocols for contact with beekeepers and ways to join forces.

Register as a Bee Veterinarian

  • Register with the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium (see Resources), and join other veterinarians who provide medical services to bees.

Once you have established involvement with the local beekeeping community, follow these essential steps.

Be Safe

  • Acquire the personal protective equipment needed to handle hives safely and minimize risk of disease transmission from one hive to another. Beekeepers are very protective of their hives and will expect the same from the veterinarian.

Learn the Laws

  • Understand federal and state regulations to ensure laws are being followed, reportable diseases are being tracked, and beekeeping clients are properly advised. Many states have individual laws to prevent the spread of disease between colonies. Contact the local state apiary inspector for assistance.

Take Courses

  • Many veterinary conferences now offer bee medicine courses, which provide opportunities to meet local bee inspectors and veterinarians already working in the field.

State Collaboration

Each state has a number of certified state apiary inspectors who are highly skilled at recognizing diseased hives and can help guide the veterinarian through testing and treatment, although they cannot write prescriptions or VFDs. State inspectors also may need to assist with necessary follow-up (eg, hive burning), according to local and state ordinances.

This emphasizes the need for collaborative relationships between apiary inspectors and veterinarians; the former may identify a disease during a hive inspection, but the VFD must be written by the latter. The hive therefore may need to be inspected twice—once by the inspector and once by the veterinarian, who cannot write a VFD based on the inspector’s word alone. Scheduling state apiary inspections and the veterinarian’s visit at the same time provides another opportunity for collaboration and expedites the process. Additionally, veterinarians should notify inspectors of any local diseases and assist the state in mapping disease prevalence and setting disease management guidelines.

Conclusion

Bees play an essential role in modern agriculture and the earth’s biodiversity. Because many plant and animal species would not thrive without these pollinators, veterinarians have a unique opportunity to use their medical and investigative skills to help protect the threatened bee populations. (See Bee Involved.)

1 Learn about new federal laws that allow veterinarians to provide previously over-the-counter medications to beekeepers.

2 Become more involved with beekeepers and play a role in saving a vital agricultural species.

3 Ensure appropriate diagnosis and treatment with at least a working knowledge of beekeeping and normal hives.

4 Join local bee organizations to expand your knowledge.

5 Collaborate with state apiary inspectors rather than working separately.

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