How Honey Bees Are Changing Veterinary Medicine (and Why Pollinators Matter)

How Honey Bees Are Changing Veterinary Medicine (and Why Pollinators Matter)

Patricia Wuest Editorial Director, NAVC

How Honey Bees Are Changing Veterinary Medicine (and Why Pollinators Matter)
Veterinary Feed Directives were created by the FDA so that veterinarians could oversee antibiotics given to animals in feed as part of the drive to combat antibiotic resistance. Photo: Kolesnikov

The relationship of veterinarians to honey bees is a little like the old Facebook status “It’s Complicated.” Until recently, most veterinarians in the U.S. weren’t concerned about beekeeping (apiculture) and honey bee medicine. Then the federal government stepped in and issued the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). This directive requires that farmers work with a licensed veterinarian when using a VFD drug, such as an antibiotic, in animal feed.

Students at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have formed the “Veterinary Medicine Bee Club” and are working with Dr. Meghan Milbrath, an academic specialist in the Department of Entomology at MSU and the coordinator of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative. The students are receiving hands-on hive skills. Cornell University veterinarian Dr. Robin Radcliffe partnered with Cornell faculty members to offer the first honeybee health course at Cornell for veterinary students. In 2018, Purdue Veterinary Medicine and the Purdue University College of Agriculture’s Department of Entomology hosted a workshop on bee medicine. Workshop participants learned from experts on basic beekeeping; honey bee biology; honey bee diseases, treatment, and prevention; as well as regulatory requirements and inspection protocols. North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine hosts the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium Conference. The two-day conference focuses on educating veterinarians and apiarists on how to integrate veterinary care into beekeeping.

Meanwhile, the AVMA has provided information about the specifics in the VFD and how it applies to veterinarians. The AVMA was involved in providing input to the FDA regarding veterinarians’ needs and roles in antimicrobial use.  FDA rules require beekeepers to obtain antibiotics from a veterinarian, through either a prescription or a written VFD. This gives veterinarians an important reason to become involved in bee health. The AVMA produced Honey Bees: A Guide for Veterinarians, which provides basic knowledge to allow veterinarians to better communicate with beekeepers and serve the needs of these unique patients.

Beekeepers have faced many challenges with disease pressure, habitat loss, and colony collapse. Veterinarians are needed to assist beekeepers with hive management, as well as disease identification, prevention, and treatment. Here are just a handful of examples of how veterinarians are involved in beekeeping:
• Helping the beekeeper who has noticed clinical signs of a colony health disorder (caused by biological hazards (e.g., bacteria, viruses, parasites) or chemical hazards (e.g., toxins)
• Preventing diseases, such as varroa mite species infestation
• Removing a wild colony in a residential setting

Even if you’re never asked to examine or treat a honeybee colony,  it doesn’t hurt to know a few things about the important role pollinators play in many ecosystems.

National Pollinator Month

June is National Pollinator Month, so we thought we’d take a look at the critical role pollinators, such as honey bees, play in our natural ecosystems.

Did you know that hard-working animals called “pollinators” — bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles — help pollinate over 75% of our flowering plants, and nearly 75% of our crops?

Animals such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, free-tailed bats, honey bees, glorious scarab beetles, painted lady butterflies, and columbine duskywing moths carry pollen from one plant to another as they collect nectar. Without them, wildlife would have fewer nutritious berries and seeds, and we would miss many fruits like apples and blueberries, vegetables like squash, nuts like almonds — not to mention chocolate, coffee and tequila, all of which depend on the thousands of keystone species known collectively as pollinators. It’s estimated that 100,000 different animal species – and perhaps as many as 200,000 – play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on the planet.

Helping Bees and Other Pollinators

Here are some things you can do to contribute to the initiative to bring awareness about the crucial importance of the pollinators.

1) Use color and fragrance when you landscape. The color or markings on a flower helps attract animals to them for pollination. Bees seem to prefer bright blue and violet colors. Hummingbirds like red, pink, fuchsia or purple flowers. Butterflies are drawn to bright colors like yellow, orange, pink and red as well as fragrant ones. At night, bats and moths are attracted to fragrance. Creating a habitat for pollinators can happen anywhere – from window boxes and small gardens to entire backyards and acres of farms.

2) Utilize plants native to your area (or at the least, non-invasive for your area). Don’t forget plants that are important o insect larvae, such as such as milkweed for monarchs. Download a free ecoregional guide online at

3) Know your soil type and select appropriate plant material.

4) Plant in clusters to create a “target’ for pollinators to find. Provide windbreaks and nesting areas, such as bat boxes or sites with low vegetation for bee nests. Allow material from dead branches and logs to remain as nesting sites.

5) Plant for continuous bloom throughout your region’s growing season.

6) Supply water for wildlife. A dripping faucet or a suspended milk carton with a pinhole in the bottom is sufficient for some insects. Bury a shallow plant saucer to its rim in a sunny area. Refill containers and birdbaths daily.

7) Reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides. If you must use a pesticide, make sure you select one that’s less toxic and try to apply at night when pollinators are less active.

8) Educate and inspire others. Make it fun — share fun facts, such as a tiny fly (a “midge”) no bigger than a pinhead is responsible for the world’s supply of chocolate!

7 Fun Facts About Pollinators

Honeybees are the most prolific pollinating insect, outworking ants, beetles, butterflies and moths. After bees, flies — especially hoverflies (aka flower or syrphid flies) — are among the most important pollinators of agricultural crops.

Dumbledore, a character in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, is the Cornish word for bumblebee.

Bats pollinate more than 300 species of fruit, including mangoes, bananas and guavas.

Hummingbirds drink tremendous amounts of flower nectar – sometimes up to half their body weight every day.

A monarch caterpillar can eat an entire milkweed leaf in less than 5 minutes, and the toxins in the milkweed are stored in the body of the insect to help ward of predators.

• For migratory pollinators, such as bats, hummingbirds, and the monarch butterfly, the identification and protection of nectar corridors is crucial.

• In the United States, several bat; bird; butterfly, skipper and moth; beetle and fly species are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Learn More

Because of the economic importance of bees on a global level, it may be time for and your practice to learn more.  VFDs are fulfilled by feed mills or VFD distributors. A veterinarian could sign up to be a distributor. For a veterinarian to issue a VFD, they must have a veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR). To form a valid VCPR, the veterinarian must physically visit the apiary.

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