Common questions veterinary teams may have about treating honey bees

August 29, 2018
Christopher J. Cripps, DVM

Dr. Christopher J. Cripps is co-owner of Betterbee, the Northeast Center for Beekeeping and webmaster of the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium (www.HBVC.org).

Dr. Christopher Cripps, bee expert and owner of Betterbee in New York, breaks down what you need to know about these tiny food-producing patients.

Shutterstock.comHave you started treating honey bees because they fall under the category of food-producing animals? Do you have questions about their care? Bee expert Christopher J. Cripps, DVM, shares the answers to some top questions you might have.

Q. Do I need a prescription or a veterinary feed directive (VFD)?

Three antibiotics are labeled for honey bees-oxytetracycline, tylosin and lincomycin. All three can be prescribed, but only oxytetracycline is available with a VFD. No matter which drug is used, they are all applied to bees by mixing the drug in sugar. Just because a drug is given by mixing in sugar does not mean it requires a VFD. Look at the label. If the approval is VFD, issue a VFD. If the approval is RX, issue a prescription. To find drug labels, visit the FDA site and enter “BEES” in the search box.

Q. What is a VFD anyway?

VFDs came about as the FDA was looking for a way to have veterinarians oversee antibiotics given to animals in feed as part of the drive to combat antibiotic resistance. Animal feed mills handle tons of feed every day. They have a very different workflow than a human pharmacy, which handles grams of medications every day. Most states have pharmacy laws that dictate how animal pharmacies operate based on human pharmacies. Animal feed mills cannot operate under these same laws, so the FDA did not want to use existing prescription laws and instead created the VFD approval status.

Q. What are the key things needed for a VFD?

For a veterinarian to issue a VFD, they must have a veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR). The FDA says that the VCPR must meet certain minimal criteria, but states may impose more stringent requirements. The FDA criteria state the veterinarian must be able to prescribe in the state where the bees are to be fed, and they must have firsthand knowledge of the beekeeping operation such that they know the beehives exist, they know how the bees are kept so they are able to make medical decisions, and they are available for follow-up in case there is an adverse reaction or treatment failure. Further, the beekeeper must be willing to follow the veterinarian's directions.

To form a valid VCPR, the veterinarian must physically visit the apiary. Video or photographs are not acceptable ways to form the VCPR. Once the VCPR is formed, however, videos and photographs can be used for follow-up. Make sure to keep medical records of honey bee visits to substantiate the VCPR.

The VFD order can be a piece of paper or can be filed electronically. Make sure you keep it for at least two years after it is issued. Some states require that these records to be kept longer.

You can get a sample VFD order that you can fill out at the Food Animal Residue Avoidance and Depletion (FARAD) website.

Most of the items you fill out are self-explanatory. There is only one drug labeled for honey bees for VFDs, oxytetracycline. Make sure to include the feeding rate at 6,400 g/ton of feed. (You'll order a lot less, but the FDA requires the amount of drug to be listed in grams per ton). Extralabel use is prohibited, so you must follow the directions. Honey bees are a minor species. The FDA has published guidelines explaining when they will not enforce the prohibition on extralabel drug use in minor species, but these exceptions are hard to apply to honey bees.

Q. How do I get the medication?

VFDs are fulfilled by feed mills or VFD distributors. A veterinarian could sign up to be a distributor. Mann Lake and Dadant are the only two bee supply companies that I know of selling VFD feeds. They have sizes as small as one pound but offer the feed in much larger lots also. They also sell the Type A medicated article so the beekeeper can mix their own oxytetracycline and sugar if they have a VFD from a veterinarian.

Prescription drugs can be obtained from many of the veterinary distributors. Tylosin is found on many clinic shelves already. Oxytetracycline is available in a 23.9-oz package. That package is about $20 and contains enough oxytetracycline to treat several hundred hives.

Dr. Christopher J. Cripps is co-owner of Betterbee, the Northeast Center for Beekeeping, and webmaster of the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium (www.HBVC.org).