Using antibiotics in the beehive - Bee in Harmony, Rowe Apiaries blog

Using antibiotics in the beehive


If I was to look back at my first year of beekeeping, the most daunting question to me was whether I should medicate or not medicate my bees.  Actually, even before that, when my hives became overrun by SHB within three weeks of getting my splits, I had to ask myself whether I am going to follow the advice given to me in the class, or … I am going to do my own thing and ultimately be called a “natural beekeeper”. “Natural” is a very dangerous word: it means “pay more, read less” on the grocery labels, “standoffish” and “full of oneself” in the mother club circles, and “I just let it be” among the beekeepers. Natural is off-putting, because it almost always instills guilt. Maybe, I am being rebellious and foolish. Maybe, I am not doing enough and should go even more “natural”.

So, while worrying about what kind of natural beekeeper I am, I spent a year reading about bees, and only bees. Finally, probably of sheer exhaustion, I stopped worrying. So, I hope, after reading this, you may worry a little less, at least.

I want to start this conversation with why we use antibiotics on livestock. We use it to keep the cost down. Simple as that. So, if you are a commercial beekeeper, trying to compete with honey producers from around the world, I will humbly take my beekeeping veil off to you, because you have more stamina to stay in business than most. But, if you are a hobby beekeeper, and cost of labor is not your issue, please read on.

I think that the worst two groups of pathogens that affect bees are bacteria and viruses. Now, just looking at bacteria in this post, I would like to discuss AFB and EFB.

Both affect the brood. One of them spreads by spores, another survives in the bacterial cells on the comb for months. So, what happens if I diligently treat my bees with antibiotics each spring? Do they kill them all? Not a chance. Just like in any other animals, antibiotics suppress bacterial growth, they don’t eliminate them all. It is up to the animal to finish off pathogenic bacteria with their own defense mechanisms. So, let’s say I actually had AFB in my hive, but I did not notice it, and just for prevention, treated the bees with Terramycin. I will leave the discussion of how this antibiotic ends up in my honey for a later post. Back to AFB: the most dangerous disease that requires reporting and hive extermination. Some bacteria, which have not yet become resistant to Terramycin will die in its vegetative state, but there will be enough spores left (those spore are viable for around 40 years) to infect the hive again, as soon as that antibiotic wears out. The same goes for EFB, only some of its bacterial cells will survive and come back in a few months. So, now I have got antibiotic in my honey, and possibly millions of spores/cells which will be always there on the comb, waiting for a better time to come back, preferably when my hive is under stress in the summer. The supers with honey will be sitting on the top of the brood super, and I won’t be able to inspect or do anything until the fall. Moreover, I have just suppressed the good bacteria in my bees’ guts and they are now more exposed to other diseases. Their metabolism is also damaged, productivity is down, and I wonder why year after year my yields are going down. OK, you get the picture. So, what do I do? Nothing? Nothings sounds good. But it is risky. Too risky for me, so, instead, I look back at EFB and AFB and try to figure out how, from the very beginning, they invade my hive. Those bacterial spores and cells are brought in by bees, of course. The bees, as individuals, have different immune systems. They are not affected by EFB or AFB, the brood is. The brood is getting it with food and then the pathogen spreads from the infected larva comb. It does not happen to the entire hive overnight. So, no reason for me to panic, unless… I have an old comb on which many generations of bees have been raised. It is like an old house, with thousands of tenants, living there for just a short time each, but… nobody really cleans well after each tenant (somehow that analogy brings back the memories of the carpet in the old military housings we used to live, when my husband was on active duty). So, if I do change my waxcomb yearly, like some beekeepers (and all beekeepers in Denmark, by law) do, my chances of having EFB/AFB infection are minimal. They are so minimal, that treating my bees with antibiotics just does not make sense. What if I found in the spring, that my new comb (replaced in September last year) has mold/fecal matter/other signs of trouble? As long as it is not AFB (again, very unlikely that AFB is brought into the hive and is wide spread in 5 months on a brand new comb), I simply replace it with a clean frame. If it is AFB, I need to report and destroy it.

Now, most beekeepers remember from all the good beginner books this statement: in the first year, you will not see signs of the diseases… Ever wonder why? Because, as beginners, we are almost always starting with a package of bees building a new comb. So, starting the second year, I recommend replacing all comb as a rule, and disinfecting the equipment.

The last point, I would like to make is that I never take a comb out of one hive and put it into another. Just because that hive appears to be healthy, it does not mean that it does not have pathogens, which are rebuffed by the healthy bees of that hive. The next hive may not have that immunity. So, this is it for now. I will post more on prevention in my later posts.

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