Honey bees 101 for veterinarians

Honey bees 101

Until the federal government's Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) final rule was issued, most veterinarians in the United States had little to no reason to be concerned about apiculture (beekeeping) and honey bee medicine. Honey bees now fall into veterinarians' purview, though, because of the VFD rule and changes in FDA policy on medically important antimicrobials. That means you may be called on to treat them.

Fortunately, as an AVMA member, you have access to resources to help increase your knowledge of honey bee medicine:

  • Honey Bees: A Guide for Veterinarians (PDF) provides basic knowledge to allow you to better communicate with beekeepers and serve the needs of these unique patients. The guide includes sections on basic bee and beekeeping terminology and equipment; beehive inspection procedures (including indicators of honey bee health and disease); and relevant honey bee diseases and conditions.
  • CE Opportunity: The AVMA's free, on-demand CE offerings include two webinars that introduce veterinarians to various aspects of beekeeping and honey bee medicine. "Honey Bees and Veterinarians" explains some of the biology of the honey bee (Apis mellifera), diseases that affect honey bees, possible treatments or controls, and the role the veterinarian may play in the apiary. "Why Do Bees Need a Veterinarian?" examines the veterinary needs of the bee industry and what veterinarians need to know to treat bee colonies. Developed from CE sessions presented at the AVMA Convention, the webinars provide an introduction to beekeeping, diagnosis and treatment of colonies, the need for veterinary involvement in treating honey bees, and how to comply with the Veterinary Feed Directive.

The above resources are available exclusively to AVMA members. For USDA-accredited veterinarians, the USDA also offers an accreditation module on honey bee medicine, which the AVMA helped develop.

Issuing VFDs or Prescriptions for Honey Bees

Honey bees are classified as livestock/food-producing animals by the federal government because products from apiculture enter the human food chain, including honey, propolis, pollen, and royal jelly. The requirements for completing a VFD order or prescription for honey bees are the same as for any other food-producing animal; the federal rule restricts beekeepers from using any medically important antibiotics (outlined in FDA guidance 152 appendix A) in their honey bees without either a VFD order or a prescription from a veterinarian. The rule applies equally to hobbyists and commercial beekeeping enterprises.

For a VFD order or prescription to be lawful, the veterinarian and the beekeeper must have a valid Veterinarian-Client Patient Relationship (VCPR). A valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship according to the federal definition is one in which:

  1. A veterinarian has assumed the responsibility for making medical judgments regarding the health of (an) animal(s) and the need for medical treatment, and the client (the owner of the animal or animals or other caretaker) has agreed to follow the instructions of the veterinarian;
  2. There is sufficient knowledge of the animal(s) by the veterinarian to initiate at least a general or preliminary diagnosis of the medical condition of the animal(s); and
  3. The practicing veterinarian is readily available for followup in case of adverse reactions or failure of the regimen of therapy. Such a relationship can exist only when the veterinarian has recently seen and is personally acquainted with the keeping and care of the animal(s) by virtue of examination of the animal(s), and/or by medically appropriate and timely visits to the premises where the animal(s) are kept.

Some states have additional VCPR requirements. To determine what constitutes a valid VCPR in your state, visit the FDA listing of VCPR requirements by state, and follow AVMA's guidelines for VCPRs.