Treating Honey Bees and Pollinators: What Veterinary Medical Professionals Need to Know
March 29, 2018
By the CVMA Veterinary Pharmaceutical Stewardship Advisory Group
Apiculture, including pollination services and the production of honey is a significant component of Canadian agricultural production. A fact that is often overlooked is that honey bees are a food producing animal. In 2015 there were 8,500 recorded honey producers in Canada. This represents over 720,000 colonies of bees. Canada produced 95 million pounds of honey with a market value of 250 million Canadian dollars.
At that time, sixty-eight per cent of the Canadian production was in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba with 41 per cent coming from Alberta. Ontario had the largest number of producers, 2562.
Generally, bee keepers will have many apiaries, each consisting of a series of colonies/ hives with several boxes or supers in each hive, containing frames, where the bees reproduce and honey is produced. The distribution of the industry is quite diverse, including; some very large commercial producers with many thousand colonies, part time producers with as few tens of colonies and many hobbyists with as little as one hive. Honey production occurs in remote rural areas, suburban settings and even in some urban environments.
The industry is well organized with producer organizations in all provinces and a national Canadian Honey Council. This is supported by Apiary Acts and Regulations in most provinces and Federal regulation under Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Professional support is available in the form of Provincial apiculturists and other provincial staff as well as tech transfer teams and federal specialists with AAFC and CFIA.
Like any livestock production system, bees are afflicted by many disease threats, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. These health situations have historically been managed by bee keepers with guidance from provincial and federal employees engaged in the field. The engagement of private veterinarians has been minimal.
American Foulbrood (AFB) is a bacterial disease with significant impact on the industry. It is wide spread with as many as 25 per cent of colonies showing the presence of spores in some areas. The prevalence varies widely across Canada. In areas of high incidence, AFB is preventively treated with tetracycline fed to the colony in fall and spring (most of the time, it is mixed with sugar and placed as a dust on top of the frames), even in unaffected colonies. Normally, the antibiotics work on the vegetative stage but not on the spore forming stage. Consequently, it hides the presence of the disease and AFB cannot be eliminated by antibiotic treatment (because the spore forming stage is not affected). As a result of this systematic preventive use, tetracycline resistance has developed and management is further complicated. Tylosin is also registered in Canada for AFB therapy and is only recommended when AFB has been confirmed and tetracycline resistance has been documented. In these situations, tylosin is used in the fall. In addition to the risk of developing resistance, both products are problematic in that there is a risk of contamination of commercial honey with antibiotics. Consequently, their use must be carefully controlled and limited to a time frame when commercial honey is not being produced.
Health Canada has directed that the use of Medically Important Antimicrobials (MIA) in food-producing animals shall be under veterinary oversight. This will be achieved by moving all MIA to the prescription only drug list, to be fully implemented by the end of 2018.
This change will have a significant impact on the apiculture industry. To access tetracycline, tylosin or any other medically important antimicrobial for use in their operation, a veterinary prescription must now be provided in all Canadian jurisdictions.
It is necessary that Canadian veterinarians become familiar with apiculture and the specific treatment requirements of bees. This is essential in order to develop legitimate Veterinarian-Client- Patient-Relationships (VCPR), establish evidence based medical need and subsequently prescribe and dispense antimicrobial treatment for patients presented by this industry.
Given the wide distribution of honey operations, it should be anticipated that as a practicing veterinarian, you may be approached to serve this industry. The need for veterinary participation will not be confined to traditional food animal veterinary practices but will also engage companion animal practitioners in suburban and urban locations.
Frequently Asked Questions:
>What is a veterinary prescription?
A prescription is a direction issued by a registered veterinarian that an animal or group of animals be treated with a specified drug, at a specified dose, for a specified period of time, for treatment of a specified condition.
>When is a veterinary prescription required?
A prescription is required for any prescription product including medically important antimicrobial for use in an animal, including honey bees. A prescription is required to dispense prescription products.
>When can a veterinary prescription be issued?
A veterinary prescription can only be issued by a registered veterinarian once they have established medical need for a product and within the confines of a Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR).
Following these four steps:
- Establish and meet conditions of a valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR) regarding the bee keeper, their operation and their bees,
- Make an evidence-based determination of medical need,
- Complete appropriate documentation in a medical record, and
- Provide oversight of use and follow up.
>What is required to establish a “VCPR”?
Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR) - A VCPR exists when all the following conditions have been met:
- The veterinarian has assumed the responsibility for making clinical assessments and recommendations regarding the health of the animal(s) and the need for medical treatment,
- The veterinarian has sufficient knowledge of the animal(s) on which to base the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of the medical condition of the animal(s). This means that the veterinarian has recently seen and is personally acquainted with the keeping and care of the animal(s) by virtue of an examination of the animal(s) or by medically appropriate and timely visits to the premises where the animal(s) are kept.
- The client has agreed to follow the veterinarian’s recommendations and prescription.
- The veterinarian is available or has arranged for follow-up evaluation, especially in the event of adverse reactions or failure of the treatment regimen.
>How does the VCPR Relate to Treating Honey Bees and Pollinators?
While the overarching principles of the VCPR also apply to bees, the process of establishing legitimate medical need for treatment may not necessarily require the specific “examination of an animal” (bee).
>What information is required for a VCPR with a bee keeper to be legitimate?
There must be a medical record indicating that the veterinarian has assumed the responsibility for making clinical assessments and recommendations regarding the health of the animals(bees) and the need for medical treatment and the producer has agreed to follow these recommendations. The veterinarian and bee keeper must be shown to have developed a working relationship.
Information in the medical record might include some or all of the following, along with whatever relevant information is available in regard to the specific circumstance.
- Producer name
- Address and location of production sites
- Confirmation of registration of operation with the province where this is required by legislation
- Premises identification number (where applicable)
- Number of apiaries
- Number of colonies/hives
- Annual production
- Reasonableness of access to production units by veterinarian
- Evidence of in person consultation with the bee keeper
- Evidence of familiarity with the operation either by actual visits to production sites or consultation by real time video communication
- History of health management practices of the operation
>What patient specific information must a veterinarian have to issue a prescription for treatment?
Some or all the following information may provide sufficient knowledge of the animal(s) on which to base the assessment and diagnosis necessary for treatment or prevention recommendations of specific medical conditions.
- Records of colony health
- Previous disease history
- Treatment history for all diseases
- Documentation of site visits by provincial apiculturists, including report and recommendations
- Clinical evidence of disease based on visual inspection by the veterinarian or qualified provincial apiculturist
- Laboratory reports from all submitted samples, confirming the presence of disease/spores
- Culture results regarding resistance to AFB
- Results of antibiotic residue testing
- Evidence of disease in the specific region or province that may potentially spread to the colony in question.
>What other information needs to be in the record?
A veterinarian is required to document all relevant information gathered about a client and patient. This will include, but not limited to, history, diagnosis, treatment and outcomes.
>Where can I obtain more information about treating bees?
- Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists: www.capabees.org
- Canadian Honey Council: www.honeycouncil.ca
- Various provincial honey producer association
- “Honey Bee Diseases and Pests” third edition, edited by Stephen F. Pernal and Heather Clay www.capabees.org
- Participate in continuing education activities currently available
- Veterinary Information Network (VIN): www.vin.com, Bees 2018
- Establish a good working relationship with the provincial apiculturist working in your province.
- Consult diagnostic laboratories and veterinary colleges
This article is intended to be a starting point for veterinarians interested in engaging in veterinary practice on bees. Professional obligations are determined by the Provincial Veterinary Regulatory Body. Comments made in this discussion are not intended to override or otherwise imply any contradiction to standards of practice established in each province.
Veterinary medical professionals are advised to contact their registration body for information on specific provincial requirements.