How vets keep bees healthy

“Bees are among the most important livestock,” says official veterinarian Björn Wilcken. Photo: Christophe Gateau / dpa

When the hobby beekeeper Björn Wilcken looks at his hives, he notices things different than many other beekeepers. Because Wilcken is a veterinarian, and soon even a bee specialist – one of a dozen in Germany.

“Bees are among the most important livestock,” says Wilcken. Therefore, there is a growing awareness that you should take care of your health.

As a future veterinarian, Wilcken not only cares about his own bees. He is an official veterinarian in Berlin. They need their bee knowledge, for example when beekeepers want to relocate their bee colonies. “For example, I need to be able to judge for signs of American foulbrood in order not to transmit any disease,” says Wilcken. His job is also important for making honey a safe food.

Veterinarians dealing with bees are still a rarity

While bees and beekeeping are gaining popularity, beekeepers are still a small group. According to the statistics of the Federal Chamber of Veterinarians for 2020, only 17 veterinarians specialize in the whole country. Nine of them have the title of specialist, the remaining eight have the title of “bee”.

Like Björn Wilcken, many of them work in the public sector or in laboratories. Hardly anyone has the typical small animal practice or driving experience. “The business idea of ​​a bee practice is honorable, but no business sense,” says Wilcken. One of the reasons is that beekeepers can usually stock up on medicines for free.

Important aspects: food, flight behavior and location

The work of a beekeeper is also different from working with dogs, cats, horses, pigs or cattle. For these special patients, blood tests or listening with a stethoscope are not possible. “We look less at bees individually and more at the entire social structure, including the hive,” says Wilcken. He pays attention to aspects such as: Do the bees fly calmly or excitedly? Do they have enough food? Are the honeycombs moldy? Does the queen lay enough eggs? What does the localization environment look like? Then he takes samples if necessary: ​​from honeycomb, honeycomb, feed disc and even dead bees.

For example, if a disease needs to be cured, an antidote can be sprayed into the hive. However, since only a few bee medications are available, it is important to prevent diseases such as Varroa mite infestation. This parasite weakens bees and can also transmit disease-causing viruses.

Wilcken’s ability to diagnose and treat bee diseases is due to his own commitment. Traditionally, bees are only taught as part of parasitology or as an optional veterinary training, says Heike Aupperle-Lellbach. The veterinarian was the first bee veterinarian in Germany. A few years ago, when she was a research fellow at the University of Leipzig, she began training as a bee veterinarian in Germany.

A group of bee specialists at DVG

Aupperle-Lellbach complains that, for example, only beekeepers and biologists, for example, are asked about the new regulations. “They do a great job, but fighting animal diseases, food law and drug law are all veterinary issues.”

In order to strengthen the importance of bees in veterinary medicine, she launched a specialist group for bees in the German Veterinary Society (DVG) in 2014. Björn Wilcken now leads the group. All contact details of bee veterinarians can be found on the website of the specialist group – in the hope that they will contact the veterinarians and get involved in the fight against e.g. American foulbrood.

“But we have to admit that we don’t have as many beekeepers as we need,” says Wilcken. According to Aupperle-Lellbach, this could change if the veterinary associations made possible more individual solutions to recognize the achievements of specialized training. According to her own statements, she only managed to win the title because the veterinary association recognized her self-study – after all, there was no training yet. The Veterinary Training Academy (ATF) of the Federal Chamber of Veterinary Doctors has been offering training to veterinarians about bees since 2015.

Further training after graduation only in a few institutions

The fact that beekeepers are still rare does not only apply to Germany. ‘There is less interest in bee science in the EU than other disciplines in veterinary research,’ concluded an international research group in a review published in 2019. For example, experimental science about animals or fish would be more debated. Bee mortality is high due to various impacts such as pesticide use and climate change. According to the survey, postgraduate training is only available in 19 institutions across Europe.

Hobby beekeepers and official Wilcken doctor also see bee vets as networkers who want to combine their knowledge with that of other bee experts. “A bee is too diverse to be assigned to just one professional group,” says Wilcken. “If everyone brings something for the buffet, it will be a great evening.”

A swarm of bees

The months of May and June are the so-called swarm season. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand / dpa

A swarm of bees

Bee experts are still rare among veterinarians. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand / dpa

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