Every year Tony Bachelder mixes up a big batch of antibiotics he buys at a local farm store, adds powdered sugar and sprinkles it on his 600 beehives to ward off disease that could wipe out his colonies. He sells whatever he has left over to hobby beekeepers, many of whom have only a few hives and find it easier to pay Bachelder a buck a hive for the medicine.

But last spring, Bachelder had to tell them that his little bee pharmacy is closed. Starting in January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will require that beekeepers needing antibiotics to keep their hives healthy must hire a veterinarian. That’s right, the honeybee will now be getting its health care needs met in the same way as the family pet or farmer’s cow.

The new regulations have beekeepers and veterinarians, well, buzzing.

“Beekeepers are going to need a veterinarian now,” said Don Hoenig, co-owner of One Health Veterinary Consulting in Belfast and former Maine state veterinarian. “That’s the bottom line. There’s still a lot of issues to be sorted out.”

Some of those issues are pretty big ones. Most veterinarians know as much about bees as they do about Bigfoot. How will they be trained?

“For the most part, they don’t want anything to do with bees,” said Tony Jadczak, who just last month left his job as state apiarist and bee inspector. He laughed: “You know, bees sting people.”

Even with training, are there enough knowledgeable vets to cover the nearly 10,000 registered hives in Maine? Will vets have to inspect all of a beekeeper’s hives to find disease that needs treatment, or just a portion of them? Bachelder worries about having to pay a veterinarian to inspect every one of his 600 hives.

Bee farmer Tony Bachelder, of Tony's Honey & Pollination Service, tends to his hives.

Bee farmer Tony Bachelder, of Tony’s Honey & Pollination Service, tends to his hives. Photos by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It takes me three weeks to go through my operation,” he said. “So if I have to hire a vet for three weeks to go with me to check every hive…”

The clock has been ticking on these new federal regulations since 2013. The rules, a new weapon in the war on antibiotic resistance, are targeted to antibiotics used in agriculture that are also used in human medicine. The primary goal is to curb any use of these drugs in animal feed for growth promotion so that the bacterial infections they target don’t develop resistance to antibiotics, which would be harmful for both animals and humans. Under the new regulations, the drugs can be used only for prevention, control or treatment of disease, and their use is allowed only with the approval of a veterinarian through a prescription or an order called a veterinary feed directive – no more over-the-counter medicines.

The regulations apply to any food-producing animal, which includes poultry, cows, sheep, and goats. They also affect honeybees, which the government considers a “minor” food-producing animal. Hoenig, who gave two presentations about the rules earlier this month at the American Veterinary Medical Association Annual Convention in San Antonio, said the changes will probably have the biggest impact on the swine and poultry industries, where many of these antibiotics have been used in feed. But Maine doesn’t have huge swine and poultry industries, and Hoenig said he doesn’t think it will have much effect on the state’s beef and dairy industries, either. That leaves the honeybee.

“It’s a big change, not just for beekeepers, but this is a huge shift in policy for the FDA,” Hoenig said. “Agriculture has been criticized for so many years for overusing antibiotics. You read figures that say as much as 70 to 80 percent of the antibiotics used in this country (are used in agriculture). Meanwhile, agriculture is not responsible for the majority of the resistance problem, which is a physician-generated problem, and they realize that. But we’re administering a lot of antibiotics to animals over the counter, and that’s mostly going to go away. And that is a good change.”

Three antibiotics used to treat honeybees fall under the new rules. They are used to treat two diseases, American foulbrood and European foulbrood.

To abide by the new rules, beekeepers will have to set up and maintain a relationship with a licensed veterinarian; have the veterinarian diagnose the disease and issue the order for an antibiotic; and buy the antibiotics from a pharmacy, not a farm store or bee supply business.

According to the legal definition of a “veterinary client patient relationship,” the vet must assume responsibility for making decisions about an animal’s health, and must have sufficient knowledge of the patient through examination or visits – in this case, to the bee yard, where the vet must open a percentage (though no one has yet spelled out what percentage) of the hives to evaluate the health of the colony. In other words, no diagnosing or prescribing over the phone or via video, Hoenig said. He guessed such veterinarian visits might add from $50 to $500 to the cost of being a beekeeper, depending on the number of hives and how far the vet has to drive to get to the bee yard.

BEWILDERED KEEPERS

Richard McLaughlin, a master beekeeper and president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association, said Maine’s estimated 1,200 registered and unregistered beekeepers are confused and nervous about the changes.

“The veterinarians would have to become beekeepers in order to understand the diseases of the bees, and then validate that the bees have the disease and sell us the (antibiotics),” McLaughlin said. “And in that period of time, the disease can get significantly worse. In a week’s time, the disease can spread. It doesn’t usually kill a colony, but it can really set it back where the bees may not produce a honey crop that year.”

Tony Bachelder of Tony's Honey & Pollination Service tends to his hives. Beginning Jan. 1, beekeepers will have to hire a vet to administer antibiotics to sick bees. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Tony Bachelder of Tony’s Honey & Pollination Service tends to his hives. Beginning Jan. 1, beekeepers will have to hire a vet to administer antibiotics to sick bees. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

McLaughlin said it doesn’t make sense to lump in honeybees with large animal food producers. For one, honey is processed, not produced, by honeybees. Honeybees add enzymes to flower nectars that help convert sucrose into fructose and glucose – but that’s a lot different than getting milk from a cow, he said.

“Obviously,” he added, “we aren’t eating honeybees, so there’s no concern there.”

Some beekeepers worry that in all the confusion, beekeepers will slack off on their use of medication, or stop using it preventively, leading to a surge in disease. Jadczak, the former state apiarist, said European foulbrood already has been spiking in the past four or five years in several states including Maine. The disease used to be found in 1 to 1.5 percent of hives inspected annually in those states; now the disease rate can reach as high as 5 to 6 percent.

“We have a rapid response to a disease outbreak, so this (new rule) may slow the process down,” Jadczak said. “We’ll see.”

WHAT ABOUT THE VETS?

Though Bachelder has a veterinarian for his other animals, the vet is not trained in caring for bees.

“If you’ve got a problem,” he said, “you need to treat it then, you don’t need to wait. And how are you going to get a vet? To find one that knows what he’s looking for is going to be even harder.”

But Hoenig notes that vets have taken on new aspects of care before. When the aquaculture industry started to take off, many training sessions were held in aquatic animal medicine, and now plenty of vets specialize in the area. “Backyard chickens is another one,” Hoenig said. Veterinary schools are already thinking about adding bee care to their curriculums, and Hoenig said he’s been asked to speak at a meeting of Maine veterinarians in November.

Bachelder inspects his hives.

Bachelder inspects his hives. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Some veterinarians who are also beekeepers, like Hoenig, may already have a baseline knowledge of bees and be happy to take on the insects as patients, he said. And others may see this as an opportunity to expand their practice and earn extra income.

McLaughlin, who tends about 35 honeybee colonies with his wife, said his group hopes the FDA will change the regulation to exempt honeybees altogether. But such an exemption is “extremely unlikely,” Chris Cripps, a veterinarian and beekeeper from New York who has actively followed the issue, said in an e-mail. “A snowball’s chance in Haiti comes to mind.”

Cripps, who also gave a presentation at the national veterinarians’ convention, is one of three veterinarian owners of Betterbee, a beekeeping supply company in upstate New York. He and his partners are also part-owners of Humble Abodes, a Maine company that manufactures apiary woodenware.

Other than outright exemption, there may be wiggle room in the rule for the veterinary feed directive which, as it stands now, does not allow the veterinarian any deviation, even for minor species like bees. The directions on the directive must be exactly what is on the label approved by the FDA, and must be followed exactly.

But in the case of the antibiotic terramycin, the label says it can be used only “for the Control of American Foulbrood.” A vet would have to find actual cases of American foulbrood in the bees in order to prescribe the medicine, Cripps said, but most beekeepers use that drug as a preventive measure. In other words, the label runs counter to the overarching idea that the drugs may be used for prevention, control and treatment. But even addressing that small potential change “is still hotly debated in the FDA,” Cripps said.

McLaughlin has suggested that perhaps the rules could be amended to allow the 15 certified master beekeepers in the state to diagnose disease and advise that the beekeeper treat the hives. But Cripps said that’s not likely to happen, either.

“The FDA is very clear that the veterinarians with their broad training in disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment will be the group that is going to be the gatekeeper of antibiotics in animals,” he said “so the FDA can ensure antibiotics continue to work for people for as long as possible.”

To ease the transition, last week Cripps started a website, BeeVets.com, that is kind of like a dating site for beekeepers and veterinarians. Vets can sign up if they have knowledge of bee health and are willing to add bee colonies to their patient list. Beekeepers can search for a bee vet in their area.

It’s a start. Only time will tell if these new relationships blossom.