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What Happens When?

This Winter I drove over the mountains to put down a rebellion of beekeepers who thought they might secede from the venerable Colorado State Beekeepers Association, of which I am president. At the meeting, some folks questioned my leadership. I felt a little like Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address, because we’re all in this together, or we’re not. I hoped my pitch went OK. Afterwards I walked out of the building into an ice storm. I took one step and did a flying Wallenda, landing on concrete on my hip. As I got up, I said, “At least I didn’t hit my head!”

Thirty-six hours later in the shower, I noticed a flap of skin hanging off the end of my elbow. My gal Marilyn cut it off with kitchen scissors.

She also found a hole at the end of my elbow. I didn’t think much of it, other than to wonder how I could do such bodily damage and not even notice. Maybe I did hit my head!

Within days an infection set in, one that did not respond to a common oral antibiotic. When I went in for a follow-up visit, there was no hiding my doctor’s alarm. He sent me to the hospital every day for a week for IV administration of a different antibiotic. On top of this he put me on two oral antibiotics. A month later, the patient is nearly healed, but all this for a banged up elbow! There was a time when a shot of penicillin would have done the trick. 

Before penicillin, infections proved all too often fatal. Penicillin came into widespread use during World War II, saving untold millions of lives. But as bugs increasingly acquired resistance to penicillin, the pharmaceutical industry came up with alternative antibiotics to knock out these resistant strains of bacteria. Yet whenever we hit them with something new, they eventually adapt. Reminds me of Varroa mites! Now, we’re running out of drugs that work. Federal health officials this year reported that “at least” 23,000 Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections. Last August a Nevada woman died from a rare infection that proved resistant to 26 antibiotics.

Seventy percent of antibiotics administered in this country go to animals, largely healthy ones, to stimulate growth and prevent disease. Such treatment is routine in pork, beef, and poultry operations. Some beekeepers use antibiotics to prevent and control European and American Foul Brood (EFB and AFB) and Nosema.

Quoting the Centers for Disease Control, “Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans.”

After 50 years of use to control and prevent AFB, some honey bees have developed resistance to oxytetracycline (Terramycin). Most American commercial beekeepers have switched to tylosin tartrate, sold under the trade name Tylan.

In response to a devastating AFB epidemic, Chinese beekeepers turned to chloramphenicol, a cheap broad-spectrum antibiotic normally reserved for human infections that don’t respond to anything else. Its use in food production is illegal here and in many other parts of the world. From the discovery of chloramphenicol in Chinese honey came the U.S. ban on Chinese honey and the establishment of testing for chloramphenicol as a marker for honey of Chinese origin.

It’s not clear if the much-ballyhooed FDA 2017 Veterinary Food Directive rule will significantly reduce American beekeepers’ use of antibiotics. Since even the experts seem confused, I won’t delve too deeply. The main thrust of the rule is to eliminate the use of antibiotics added to feed to stimulate animal growth. That’s never been a driver in beekeeper antibiotic use. The language gets a little technical, but basically the rule requires that antibiotic administration be done under the authority of a veterinarian with whom you, the beekeeper, have a “Veterinary Client Patient Relationship.” This basically means the vet knows you and trusts your judgment. The vet can then write a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which is not exactly the same as a prescription. I told you it gets technical. The vet can write a VFD for an outbreak of AFB in your bees, which means you can get an antibiotic to treat it. The vet might also be able to prescribe preventive treatment for AFB.

I took our blue heeler Pepper to the vet because he was dragging his hind end on the grass, which here at Colby Farm we refer to as “the scootie.” That, and the poor little guy was up all night trying to pass stool. I learned that he had “colitis,” and the vet prescribed an antibiotic.

I said to the vet, “Not now, but maybe later I might need some Tylan for American foulbrood in my beehives.”

The vet said, “You know what American foulbrood looks like?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, just let me know when you have a problem, and I’ll take care of you,” he said.

The gold standard for AFB treatment is burning the hive, and you don’t need to consult a vet for that. But here in Colorado we generally have a fire ban during the time of year when you’re likely to come across AFB. I use Tylan to keep AFB-ridden hives alive and healthy until I can re-queen and shake the bees onto foundation.

Antibiotics, used judiciously, make our lives better in countless ways. Very recently, Marilyn, Pepper and I were on antibiotics at the same time, and we all got better. If I ever get that right knee replaced, I’m going to need effective antibiotics.

In the beeyard, I treat to cure, not to prevent. I’m not here to judge my fellow beekeeper. We all do what we feel we have to. No one wants a plague of AFB. But actions have consequences. What happens when we run out of antibiotics?

Ed Colby practices beekeeping in Aspen Mountain, Colorado, where he lives with his partner, Marilyn.