Honeybee medicine catching on with veterinarians

Veterinarians, beekeepers slowly warming to idea of working together

Five years ago, when the Food and Drug Administration began requiring veterinary oversight of antimicrobials used in food-producing animals that also are important in human medicine, the agency essentially created a new field of veterinary practice: honeybee medicine.

Prior to the implementation of veterinary feed directives in 2017, beekeepers bought antimicrobials for bee colonies over the counter. Now an antimicrobial order from a veterinarian is needed. That drug order must be issued within the context of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. The prescribing veterinarian should know honeybee behavior, biology, and diseases.

Given their training in comparative medicine, veterinarians can diagnose and treat a wide range of animal diseases. But American and European foulbrood? Colony collapse disorder? Varroa mites? Most U.S. veterinary curricula don’t cover these major threats to honeybees.

That’s beginning to change, however.

Dr. Ryan Kane inspecting a hive
Dr. Terry Ryan Kane, on a hive call, inspects one of more than a dozen honeybee hives owned by a hobbyist client. (Courtesy of Dr. Ryan Kane)

For the past four years, Meghan Milbrath, PhD, has taught honeybee medicine to fourth-year veterinary students at Michigan State University. The three-week elective is designed so students who have completed the course have the skills and knowledge to conduct hive inspections on their own, said Dr. Milbrath, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and faculty adviser for the veterinary college’s honeybee medicine club.

“I really try to elevate honeybees so we’re giving them the same moral and ethical considerations that we give to other animals,” she said.

Topics covered in Dr. Milbrath’s course include honeybee biology, the beekeeping industry, disease diagnostics, and treatment recommendations. “My main motivation is the fact that beekeepers really struggle to find veterinarians willing to work with them,” she said.

Join the club

The same year that veterinary feed directives went into effect, a small group of veterinarians came together to form the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium, a nonprofit organization with the purpose of training veterinarians in honeybee medicine.

Dr. Terry Ryan Kane, one of the HBVC board members, said other livestock producers expected the VFD ruling, but many beekeepers didn’t anticipate being included in the FDA rule. “And because there were so few veterinarian beekeepers, we knew we had our work cut out for us,” said Dr. Kane, co-editor of the textbook “Honey Bee Medicine for the Veterinary Practitioner,” published in 2021.

Membership in the HBVC has climbed to just over 320; mostly they are veterinarians, but the consortium also includes students, researchers, and apiarists, or beekeepers. The organization has hosted annual conferences, and a number of veterinary colleges have HBVC student chapters with faculty advisers. Additionally, the consortium is developing a certification course for veterinarians that will require 150 hours of training in honeybee medicine.

Consortium members speak at veterinary conferences, and, increasingly, they are being invited to talk to beekeeper clubs. Dr. Britteny Kyle, a former HBVC president, says beekeepers are slowly coming to terms with having to involve veterinarians in their apiaries. Most see veterinarians as a means to acquiring antimicrobials for their hives, but some are starting to recognize that veterinarians offer more than just a prescription. Veterinarians are beginning to recognize this, too.

The profit margin within the honey industry is slim, so large-scale operators must be convinced that veterinarians add 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,” Dr. Kyle said.

On the other end of the beekeeper spectrum are the hobbyists, or “backyarders,” with two or three hives. “They’re more like pet owners,” Dr. Kyle said. “They’re not trying to make money but just enjoy keeping bees. They think of their bees as a pet, and they may be more receptive to a veterinarian helping 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.

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

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

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates pollination by managed honeybee colonies adds at least $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture annually through increased yields and high-quality harvests.

Honeybee laboratory
Participants gather around a hive during one of the honeybee laboratories offered during the 2018 AVMA Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. The lab was taught at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory by entomologists and beekeepers. (Courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Faux)

And yet honeybees are being decimated by pests, pesticides, disease, habitat loss, and climate change. The USDA estimates the number of managed honeybee colonies plunged from 5 million during the 1940s to approximately 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 with any other animal species, like if 30% of dogs died or 30% of cattle died every year, people would care.

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

A growing number of resources are becoming available to veterinarians interested in learning about honeybee medicine. In addition to the HBVC website and the AVMA’s guide to honeybee health (PDF), there are textbooks, scientific articles, and continuing education sessions. And many agricultural colleges have extension specialists who work with beekeepers.

Dr. Kane recommends veterinarians 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 by working with it, and few animals are more fascinating than—or as essential as—the honeybee.”

The AVMA provides numerous resources on honeybees for veterinarians.

A version of this article appears in the Jan. 15, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.