They may be neither fish nor fowl, but as far as the United States government is concerned, honeybees are livestock.
Which means as of the first of the year, beekeepers — including the roughly 1,200 in Maine — will no longer have access to certain over-the-counter antibiotics used to treat the condition known as European foulbrood, and are going to need prescriptions for the drug from a licensed veterinarian.
European foulbrood is a bacterial disease that affects honeybee larvae before the capped stage and is characterized by dead and dying larvae in the hive.
“Thanks to a pending [Federal Drug Administration] policy and rule change, veterinarians will need to be involved,” according to Dr. Don Hoenig, former state veterinarian and beekeeper. “This is a major policy shift.”
It’s treated with oxytetracycline sold under the trade name Terramycin and is currently available online or at agricultural feed stores.
That is all about to change, according to Hoenig.
“This is the result of changes to FDA policy concerning the use of antibiotics [and] especially the ones administered in [animal] feed,” he said. “And it includes the ones used for treating foulbrood in bees.”
Adopted three years ago, the policy going into effect on Jan. 1 requires beekeepers to have an existing relationship with a licensed veterinarian, who must then issue a so-called “veterinary feed directive” prescribing the medication.
To do that, Hoenig said, the veterinarian must be willing to actually examine the bees.
“Many of the beekeepers knew this was coming,” he said. “But a lot of veterinarians are not aware of this new policy,” he said.
Among them are Dr. Christiana Yule at Fort Kent Animal Hospital.
“I don’t remember studying insects in veterinary school,” Yule said. “I wonder if they are going to have to start adding it to the curriculum.”
While the likelihood of a beekeeper bringing all 60,000 residents of a working hive into Yule’s clinic for an exam is remote at best, there is the very real possibility she — and other veterinarians around the state — may be asked to visit apiaries exhibiting foulbrood symptoms.
“I can’t put my license at risk by misdiagnosing something like this,” Yule said. “At this point, we’d need to take the beekeepers’ word for it on what was going on in the hives.”
Training and education are going to be key to a smooth transition into the new policy, according to Hoenig.
“Under their existing license, any veterinarian can write the prescriptions,” he said. “But I am not sure there are too many vets willing to go out and write them on something they may know nothing about [and] there is going to need to be some kind of continuing education efforts for them.”
Part of those efforts could include veterinarians establishing new working relationships with local beekeepers and state bee inspectors, Hoenig said.
The resources are out there for the state’s large and small animal veterinarians who want to learn more about bee colony health, according to Dr. Michele Walsh, Maine state veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
“We have known for awhile this was coming and been working on outreach with the new FDA rules,” Walsh said. “I do think this is going create an increased workload for our veterinarians and may pose some challenges for [beekeepers] who do not have an existing relationship with a veterinarian.”
Richard McLaughlin, master beekeeper and president of the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association, said his group is keeping an eye on the policy change and members are concerned.
Recognizing that the push behind the policy is keeping antibiotics out of the foodstream, McLaughlin said bees got caught up in the process.
When treating for foulbrood, he said, beekeepers take steps to ensure there is no honey production going on in the infected hive for three weeks after the final dose of antibiotics is administered.
As it is, McLaughlin said, there is no chance antibiotics can get into the honey, as bees process or “create” honey by adding enzymes to the nectar they collect.
“It’s not like a cow that produces milk that could contain any medications that animal was given,” he said. “Provided everyone follows the directions on the package, the medication never gets into the honey itself.”
Because beekeepers are so accustomed to diagnosing and treating European foulbrood, he’s worried having to take the extra step of consulting with a veterinarian could waste valuable treatment time.
“When the disease is noticeable to the average beekeeper it’s already pretty significant and in the matter of a week or two, the colony can get a lot sicker if untreated,” he said. “How long is it going to take to make the circle with the vet to get a prescription and how much sicker will the hive get in that time?”
Veterinarians in Maine will need to become versed in bee health, Hoenig said.
“This is an opportunity for our profession,” he said. “While we have not necessarily learned about bees in veterinary school, we do know how to get ourselves up to speed on new disciplines.”
How quickly they can come up to speed worries McLaughlin.
“Right now not many of our veterinarians in Maine are trained beekeepers,” he said. “So how is a veterinarian next year who has never seen foulbrood in honeybees [and] can’t diagnose it going to help the beekeeper? We have hundreds of beekeepers in Maine. What kind of burden is this going to put on the veterinary system in the state?”
Walsh is hoping all the outreach her department is doing will help alleviate many of these concerns.
“The activity of bees is critical to the success of agriculture in Maine,” she said. “As veterinarians we are not educated to treat just one species [and] a lot of us have adapted our practices to our clients’ needs — the resources are out there for vets to get the training they need to help the beekeepers and adapt to fill that need.”