Federal directive brings veterinarians and beekeepers together

Drugs for honeybee disease will require veterinary prescription in 2017
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Come Jan. 1, 2017, hobbyist and commercial beekeepers alike will no longer be able to purchase antimicrobials over the counter, but instead, will need a veterinary feed directive or prescription for the drugs they administer to their honeybees.

The federal mandate requiring veterinary oversight of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals, including honeybees, is part of a Food and Drug Administration strategy to reform the way these drugs are legally used in food animals.

For millennia, humans have relied on Apis mellifera for food, to create candles and cosmetics, and, most importantly, to pollinate crops, earning them the name “the angels of agriculture.” Veterinary medicine in the United States has, however, traditionally paid little attention to honeybees, the only insect listed as a food-producing animal.

Jim Belli inspects a hive
Jim Belli of Old Mill Creek, Illinois, inspects one of his hives. The FDA rule concerning antimicrobial use in food-producing animals, taking effect in 2017, will require U.S. beekeepers to get veterinary approval to purchase these drugs for their honeybee colonies.

Dr. Christopher Cripps is a rarity as one of a handful of U.S. veterinarians knowledgeable about honeybee health and apiculture. Co-owner of honeybee supply business in Greenwich, New York, Dr. Cripps considers the FDA action an opportunity for veterinarians to access a relatively untouched animal industry valued by the Department of Agriculture at just over $327 million in 2015.

“The FDA has said veterinarians and beekeepers have to get together,” he said. “It’s new to us, and it’s new to beekeepers, who are used to having no one looking over their shoulder.”

This past August, Dr. Cripps spoke at AVMA Convention 2016 about honeybee diseases, approved medications in apiculture, and what the new Veterinary Feed Directive means for veterinarians. Additionally, Dr. Cripps is part of a working group formed by the AVMA Food Safety Advisory Committee to help veterinarians understand the legal requirements of writing a VFD or prescription for honeybees.

“As a strong proponent of responsible antibiotic use, the AVMA has been involved in the changing regulations from the very start,” said Dr. Christine Hoang, an assistant director of the AVMA Animal and Public Health Division and staff adviser for the food safety committee.

Honeybees are prone to 18 infectious diseases; the FDA has approved three antimicrobials for American and European foulbrood disease.

“We’ve also recognized that minor species, including honeybees, have unique circumstances and needs that must be addressed. It will be a steep learning curve, but we are currently developing educational materials for our member veterinarians and are dedicated to collaborative solutions for the beekeeping industry,” Dr. Hoang said.

The National Honey Board puts the number of U.S. beekeepers at around 125,000, most of them hobbyists with fewer than 25 hives. Last year, domestic honey production totaled 157 million pounds, according to the USDA, which says managed honeybee colonies contribute roughly $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture each year through increased yields and superior harvests.

Some 18 diseases attributable to bacteria, viruses, and parasites have been identified in honeybees. Arguably the greatest disease threat is the Varroa destructor mite, which drains the blood of adult bees and is a vector for various viruses that easily kill off weakened insects. Varroa mites are suspected to play an important role in colony collapse disorder, a mysterious occurrence in which most of the worker bees abandon a colony, leaving few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and queen.

Humans have managed honeybees for centuries, and yet, veterinarians, particularly in the United States, have had little to do with these food-producing animals.

American foulbrood disease is the most serious of the honeybee bacterial pathologies. The disease is caused by the spore-forming Paenibacillus larvae, which infects one- to two-day-old bee larvae and kills them during the pupal stage. Beekeepers have three FDA-approved antimicrobials to control foulbrood outbreaks—oxytetracycline, tylosin, and lincomycin—which are typically mixed with sugar and dusted over the frames inside a bee hive.

In his presentation at the AVMA convention, Dr. Cripps cited a 2015 survey by the Bee Informed Partnership in which 357 of approximately 5,000 beekeepers admitted using antimicrobials in their bee colonies. Commercial beekeepers, who, on average, own approximately 900 hives, are the primary users of antimicrobials, he added.

Within the beekeeping community, there is little understanding of bacteriology or how antimicrobial resistance is spread, Dr. Cripps observed. “Basically, the beekeepers know that if oxytetracycline doesn’t work, I should use tylosin,” he explained.

Dr. Cripps described beekeepers as a lot like food animal producers, saying they are frugal yet willing to pay for services that promote the health of their colonies and result in increased honey production. “They’re OK with spending money so long as they’re getting something for the money they spend,” he explained.

Veterinarians can demonstrate their value to beekeepers, Dr. Cripps said, by delivering the same services they provide to owners of avian and mammalian livestock, such as preventive care, disease diagnosis and treatment, parasite control, and education in good husbandry practices. “I think the FDA is not looking for us to exchange our signature for money, which is basically how the beekeepers feel the veterinarians are going to be,” he said. “The FDA wants us to know what’s going on. We have a great education that puts us in a great position to help beekeepers understand the diseases their bees get and how to control and prevent them.”

Dr. Nicolas Vidal-Naquet, a lecturer of honeybee biology and diseases at the Veterinary School of Alfort in France, views the new federal Veterinary Feed Directive as “a very positive decision.” In an email to JAVMA News, Dr. Vidal-Naquet wrote, “This will lead veterinarians to get involved in apiculture, and this will lead beekeepers and other apiculture professionals to apply good practices in using veterinary medicines.”

Infographic: Honeybee facts
Facts about honeybees and apiculture (Enlarge)

Treating honeybees with antimicrobials is illegal in Europe, where miticides to control the Varroa mite are the only approved medications, according to Dr. Vidal-Naquet, author of “Honeybee Veterinary Medicine: Apis mellifera L.,” published in 2015.

“I think that antibiotic resistance is a real problem in the U.S. because of a misuse and overuse of antibiotics,” he said, adding he advocates for good husbandry practices as the ideal way of preventing and controlling honeybee diseases.

Dr. Vidal-Naquet explained how European veterinarians, like their American counterparts, overlooked honeybees as a sector of animal agriculture until 2005, when the Nantes Atlantic College of Veterinary Medicine, Food Science, and Engineering in France established the first veterinary postgraduate degree in apiculture and honeybee diseases. At least 200 veterinarians have graduated from the Nantes program so far, Dr. Vidal-Naquet said, while veterinary schools in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Austria now devote some courses to honeybee health and husbandry.

The catalyst for the novel veterinary degree was the desire of a small number of veterinarians who, Dr. Vidal-Naquet said, wanted their profession to do more to safeguard an increasingly threatened animal species whose importance to humans and the environment cannot be overstated.

Within a decade, that message had caught on, with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) devoting an entire issue of its 2014 “bulletin” to honeybees. Dr. Bernard Vallat, OIE director general at the time, called the potential loss of honeybees a “biological, agricultural, environmental, and economic disaster. Maintaining healthy populations of these key pollinating insects … is a critical health challenge deserving the full attention of the global community.”

Related JAVMA content:

AVMA giving help on veterinary feed directives (March 15, 2016)

Antimicrobial sales rise despite pending changes (Feb. 15, 2016)