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Veterinarians may find themselves making "hive calls" under new regulations

Sep 26, 2017

Most veterinarians probably don't picture themselves working with bees. But thanks to new federal regulations, more and more might soon find themselves with six-legged patients.

One of the first things you notice about the honey bee hives in Bonnie Reardan's Dexter backyard is the smell. It's hard to describe, but words like woodsy, sweet and earthy come to mind.

"When you go around hives, that's just the typical smell of the hive. At least, a healthy hive," says Reardan.

Reardan opens up one of the hives and pulls out a frame covered with honey bees, busy taking care of brood, or baby bees.

A frame from one of Reardan's hives. Kane points out brood patterns on the frame.
Credit Rebecca Kruth

"Oh Bonnie, that's gorgeous. That's perfect,” says Dr. Terry Ryan Kane, a veterinarian and friend of Reardan's.

You could say Kane is on a “hive call” today. As she examines the frame Reardan is holding, she talks about some of the things she looks for when she evaluates the health of a hive, including dead bees, bee activity and brood patterns.

"You want to see an arc on a frame of capped brood; uncapped brood. Then the pollen kind of rainbows over that, and the honey food source rainbows over that. That one's perfect,” Kane says.    

Under her protective bee suit, Kane wears a shirt printed with tiny bees and socks with bees dancing around the cuffs. She’s even got a black and yellow bee tattoo on her forearm. You’d never know that before she retired, Kane used to spend her time taking care of cats. 

Dr. Terry Kane's bee tattoo.
Credit Rebecca Kruth

A few years ago, she heard about new Food and Drug Administration regulations that have now changed beekeepers' access to antibiotics. She decided it was time to go back to work.

"I kept bees, I love bees, and I knew about the regulations, so I put those together and became a bee vet," she says. 

"I kept bees, I love bees, and I knew about the regulations, so I put those together and became a bee vet."

Reardan’s hives get a clean bill of health from Kane, but bees can get sick just like other animals. Sometimes they even need antibiotics.

Before the new regulations went into effect this year, if a beekeeper needed antibiotics for their hives, they could get them over the counter at farm stores and bee supply companies. Now they need approval from a veterinarian.

Dr. Chris Cripps, a veterinarian who runs a bee supply company in Greenwich, New York, says the new rules are part of an effort to prevent antibiotic resistance in food-producing animals, including bees.

"Your doctor may not give you a prescription for antibiotics if you have a cold, that's part of it. [Vets] having to say 'yes these animals truly are sick, and this is a warranted need for the antibiotics,' that's a similar part of that same effort," Cripps says.

A "warranted need" for bees would be a bacterial disease like American Foulbrood. It’s highly contagious and highly lethal.

For years, beekeepers have fed their hives antibiotics mixed with powdered sugar to treat and prevent American Foulbrood—that’s helped control it. Cripps says today there's probably only a one to two percent prevalence in the U.S.

"The beekeepers are deathly afraid that if the antibiotics have been truly doing their job, then what they're doing is keeping this bacteria at a low, manageable level,” Cripps says. “Now, without antibiotics so freely available, will there be an outbreak of this disease again?"

Whether American Foulbrood makes a comeback remains to be seen. For now, if a beekeeper wants to treat with antibiotics, they have to find a licensed veterinarian willing to work with bees and set up a relationship.

For large-scale commercial beekeepers like Terry Klein, the new rules are extra steps for a problem they're used to diagnosing and treating on their own, without a vet.

Terry Klein uses a hive tool to remove a frame. This is one of around 2,250 hives Klein's company is running this year.
Credit Rebecca Kruth

Klein owns a honey bee farm in St. Charles called T.M. Klein & Sons. After he and his wife bought the property nearly 50 years ago, they decided to buy one hive to help pollinate their apple trees and garden.

"Somewhere between then and now, it got out of control. We're running 2,250 hives this year,” Klein says. 

The farm sells honey to Kroger, Meijer, and mom and pop grocery stores. One of their biggest customers is Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, which buys nearly two dozen 55-gallon barrels each week from July to October to make Christmas Ale.

Employees at T.M. Klein and Sons fill a barrel with honey.
Credit Rebecca Kruth

Klein says his hives have never had a problem with American Foulbrood, though there was a scare last spring. 

"We’re slacking off on usage [of antibiotics] because we haven't seen the problem," Klein says.

Klein’s son is currently working to set up a relationship with a local vet. But not every town or city has a vet with bee experience.

"It's not a normal relationship. They're used to working with four-legged critters."

"It’s not a normal relationship. They’re used to working with four-legged critters. It'll work out all right, it's just complicated. It’s political,” Klein says. “I can understand what they're trying to do, but they don't understand what we're trying to do." 

Most vets don't get much if any bee education in vet school. But more and more are stepping up to learn. Right now, the Michigan Pollinator Initiative lists 22 veterinarians in Michigan who are willing to work with bees.

Still, it's probably going to be a while before bees are just another patient.