Joshua Cobb, The Examiner
“Bees are insects, but few veterinarians realize they are also classified as food animals,” said Dr. Don Hoenig, co-owner of One Health Veterinary Consulting, and part of the team at Betterbee Beekeeping, speaking at the American Veterinarian convention this past July. “This January, the FDA will be enforcing new rules regarding honey bees and prescriptions. This is a new opportunity for veterinarians, and we should tap into the need for education.”
Effective Jan. 1, 2017, antibiotics used by beekeepers will no longer be available over the counter. In an effort to address concerns with antibiotic resistance, the FDA has ruled that antibiotics used to treat common bee diseases will now need to be ordered by a veterinarian either through a prescription or Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). Beekeepers can no longer diagnose and treat problems requiring antibiotics without a licensed veterinarian.
According to www.honey.com, there are 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers across the United States operating in the billion-dollar industry. The Bee Informed Partnership surveyed beekeepers and found that only 1/14 currently use drugs. “Most beekeepers will not be affected by the FDA changes,” said Dr. Chris Cripps, co-owner of Betterbee, a beekeeping supply company in Greenwich, NY. “But at the same time, most U.S. veterinarians don’t know about bees or their diseases. We have a gap to fill.” Dr. Cripps is also speaking at an AVMA Convention in San Antonio, in July, about the new mandates.
Betterbee sells beekeeping supplies online and in its store in upstate New York and is a go-to source for education in basic beekeeping to advanced management and disease detection, but, like the vast majority of veterinary practices, the business currently provides no clinical services to honey bees. So who is going to step up come Jan. 1?
Initially, veterinary “stepper uppers” may be skewed more heavily toward veterinarians in large-animal practices, which already incorporate a business model of going to the patients, and not vice versa. Drs. Hoenig and Cripps both agree that veterinarians involved will have an affinity for bees and a desire to get the necessary education. “Veterinarians have always self-selected what topics they want to delve into and what animals they will specialize in at their practice,” said Dr. Hoenig. “Curriculums evolve, but the common factor is always meeting the standards of care.”
In order to write a VFD, the veterinarian also needs to have established a Veterinary Client Patient Relationship, or VCPR. As Dr. Hoenig explained, a veterinarian can’t “phone in” a prescription for beekeepers. According to the FDA Guidance document, this needs to be either a state- or federal-defined VCPR in which a veterinarian engages with a client to assume responsibility for making decisions about animal health and has sufficient knowledge of the patient by virtue of patient examination and/or visits to the facility where patient is managed. This would include a visit to the beeyard during which a veterinarian looks at records of treatment, opens a percentage of the hives and evaluates the health of the colony. The expiration date of the VFD is not to exceed six months.
With the word out since 2013 on changing FDA regulations, Dr. Cripps has fielded calls from veterinary medical schools at Cornell University and Mississippi State University. “The Deans have heard about the FDA changes and want to know how they can best serve the students,” said Dr. Cripps. “Bees have been in the curriculum in the veterinary medical program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico as well as most other programs outside North America. I expect our U.S. schools to follow in some manner.”
Antibiotics are also used to treat bacterial diseases, such as American Foulbrood (AFB). The highly contagious disease kills developing bees, with millions of infectious spores produced in each affected bee. As bees clean their hive, they carry spores to all parts of the hive, including the honey, and to other hives. AFB spores are so difficult to kill that they can be reactivated after 70 years of storage. Fire and gamma-irradiation are typically used to clean up affected hives.
“If beekeepers treat their hives with sugar infused with antibiotics, clinical AFB can be suppressed,” said Dr. Cripps. “With the new regulatory measures in place, we might see a resurgence of the disease because antibiotics now cannot be administered without a prescription or VFD, and some beekeepers may forego finding a veterinarian to save time and money. For most large beekeepers, though, added cost for veterinary care could be quite minimal per hive.”
A possible resurgence could cause havoc during pollination season, said Dr. Cripps. Flatbed trailers bring tens of thousands of hives to places like California to pollinate almonds, and Maine to pollinate blueberries and apples. Orchards pay up to $200 a hive to have the bees stay for a short period to pollinate trees so they produce more and better fruit or nuts. It’s big business with a potentially big risk. If infected hives introduce disease to a temporarily heavily populated area, “disease could spread rapidly as the hives go to the next crop or home,” according to Dr. Cripps.
“This is reality,” said Dr. Hoenig. “Veterinarians need to get educated through our local associations, in wet labs and through meetings like the AVMA Convention and, hopefully, USDA accreditation modules. We need to have involvement throughout the country. It’s a challenge and a One Health opportunity for veterinarians, where we can make a difference to the overall well being of animals, people and the environment. We need to work together.”