Call the Bee Vet

A Cummings School elective in honey bee medicine prepares veterinarians to work with beekeepers
Two people in white beekeeper’s safety outfits confer over a hive. A Cummings School elective in honey bee medicine prepares veterinarians to work with beekeepers.
Jillian Nolan, V22, left, and Alisha Gruntman, assistant professor of clinical sciences, check on the beehives behind the administrative building at Cummings School. Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 25, 2019

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As an assistant professor of large animal internal medicine at Cummings School, Alisha Gruntman knows how to manage the health of groups of pigs, sheep, cows, and other livestock. Now, she’s teaching veterinary students how to apply the same population-health principles to food animals of a different stripe—tiny herds of tens of thousands of honey bees.

Backyard beekeeping got more complicated in January 2017, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put into effect the Veterinary Feed Directive. The regulations mandate that if antibiotics used in human medicine will be ingested by food-producing animals, the drugs need to be prescribed by a veterinarian. As producers of honey, bees fall under the FDA directive, regardless of whether the insects are kept by a hobbyist or large commercial operation.

The new rules seek to address agriculture’s role in limiting the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as reduce antibiotic residues in honey and other foods that could harm unsuspecting consumers with allergies.

Bee keepers have long relied on several antibiotics that are common in human medicine to treat hives for diseases such as European foulbrood, a bacterial illness. Such bee antibiotics were once sold over the counter, but now are available only once a veterinarian has conducted an exam to ensure they’re truly needed.

Shortly after the FDA directive mandating that any antibiotics for honeybees be prescribed by veterinarians, Cummings School offered a sold-out continuing-education workshop for practicing veterinarians. Tufts hopes to offer more training for veterinarians in the near future. Photo: Alonso NicholsVeterinarians now must inspect bees in their hives to assess them. The problem is that, although beekeepers are now trying to engage more with veterinarians, “there are not enough veterinarians who know about bees out there to help them,” said Gruntman.

To bridge that care and knowledge gap, former Cummings School assistant professor Emi Knafo, V08, helped launch the school’s first bee medicine course in 2017.

In the popular elective, now offered every spring, first- and second-year students learn about basic honey bee biology, equipment, how to assess a hive’s health, and proper care and handling of the bees. The students also take a field trip to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture apiary in Amherst, where the state’s honey bee program inspectors conduct education, outreach, and research.

Using a Tufts Innovates grant, Cummings School purchased bee suits and installed hives around campus so all the students can don protective gear and put what they learn into practice. “We spend as much time as the weather permits working with the hives, so the students become really comfortable working with bees,” said Gruntman, who grew up with a beekeeping father and now teaches Tufts’ bee medicine course.

Jillian Nolan, V22, took the elective this past spring and appreciated its hands-on approach. “It really helped me to be able to observe a hive, so what we were learning in class made sense.” A bee novice at the start of the course, Nolan said she gained a solid understanding of symptoms of common hive problems, as well as of signs of healthy honey bee population with a functioning queen. 

The veterinary students have been doing a great job caring for the bees, Gruntman said. Starting out with five hives, they grew the school’s honey bee population to fill ten hives. And all the colonies survived even New England’s coldest months, an impressive feat given that commercial operations nationally reported losing almost 40 percent of their honey bees over last winter, according to a study published by the Bee Informed Partnership.

Nolan—one of five students volunteering to help out with the bees over the summer—said she’s excited to help extract some honey in August—the first to be harvested on campus. The honey will be offered for sale to members of campus through the Cummings School Farm.

The proceeds will be used to support the honey bee medicine program, which recently installed native plants for a new pollinator-friendly flower bed outside Tufts Wildlife Clinic. Gruntman said she worked with the Medford-based Tufts Pollinator Initiative to choose appropriate plants. She hopes to eventually install signage by the flower bed that explains how the public can similarly support bees, butterflies, moths, and other pollinators.

Nolan, for one, said the new buzz on campus has prepared her to graduate as a well-rounded veterinarian. “I always thought honey bees were kind of cool,” she said. “And I’m happy that if I’m ever in a practice situation where someone happens to have bees, I’ll feel confident pointing them in the right direction.”

Bee keepers looking for veterinarians to inspect and treat hives can find more information from the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.