As many of you know, the drugs that are currently labeled for the prevention and treatment of American and European foulbrood will no longer be available for over-the-counter purchase beginning January 1, 2017. The decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to tighten control over antibiotics is a response to the ever declining list of antibiotics that actually work. Overuse of medically important antibiotics has led to resistant strains of many pathogens that affect both human and animal health.
The new regulations will restrict the use of antibiotics that enhance growth in livestock. In addition, veterinary oversight will be required for certain drugs used to treat diseases in livestock, including honey bees.
From a public policy standpoint this type of restriction is long overdue. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics is rampant, and important drugs are often used even when they are not needed, leading to the resistant pathogens which are cropping up everywhere, especially in hospitals.
The impact on honey bee colonies
In spite of the good that can come from this legislation, as a beekeeper I wonder what the potential impact may be. Many, many beekeepers use Terramycin (oxytetracycline) to prevent or suppress American foulbrood (AFB) or European foulbrood (EFB) in their hives. In addition, some use lincomycin or tylosin for treatment. All of these drugs will soon become unavailable without a prescription. Both of these brood diseases are highly contagious among honey bee colonies and the only non-drug “treatment” for AFB is burning of the infected hives.
We don’t see much AFB these days, and I wonder if that is because it is disappearing or because it is being suppressed by drugs. I know of people who purchased nucs from beekeepers who routinely suppressed AFB such that symptoms never appeared. But when the innocent purchaser didn’t continue the suppression, the disease reappeared in short order. What these stories suggest is that AFB is alive and well and about to make a comeback.
The incidence of infection may increase
Since drugs like oxytetracycline will require a veterinary prescription, I speculate that the incidence of infected hives will increase. As a result, people like me, who have never given much thought to AFB, may suddenly be hit with it.
Simply put, those beekeepers who were suppressing AFB kept it from spreading. Those suppressors left many small-time beekeepers pretty much free of the disease. Although I’ve never treated for it and have never seen it in my apiary, I wonder how long that will last under the new system. As with other diseases, absconding bees, drifting bees, swarming bees, robbing bees, lost bees, and drones can all carry the disease. Since foulbrood does not affect adult bees, they can easily carry it wherever they go.
I further speculate that the reappearance of AFB and EFB will not happen immediately. I suspect that beekeepers who have been using the drugs are stockpiling, so for a while, at least, we won’t notice a large uptick in cases. But as stockpiles disappear or lose their effectiveness, the incidence of disease will rise. And once your hive becomes infected, how easy will it be to find a veterinarian who is willing to diagnose your hive and prescribe treatment? And how affordable will that be?
It’s not getting easier for beekeepers
I really do have mixed feelings about the new laws. Yes, they are most likely a good thing. But with all the problems honey bees face, perhaps we need an exception. Should we be allowed one easy-to-get drug for the brood diseases? I assume that not all beekeepers with AFB will burn their hives or go to a vet. Instead they will try to keep their bees alive, spreading the pathogen far and wide while their colonies collapse.
If nothing else, beekeepers should be aware of this potential new problem and be on the lookout for symptoms. Beekeeping is tough and every day seems harder than the one before. Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? I wonder.
Honey Bee Suite