Bees pollinate plants and provide honey. They are among the most important livestock in agriculture. There are now special veterinarians who take care of bees.
When hobby beekeeper Björn Wilcken looks at his beehives, he notices different things than many of his fellow beekeepers. Because Wilcken is a veterinarian and soon even a specialist veterinarian for bees – one of only a dozen in Germany.
“Bees are among the most important livestock,” says Wilcken. Therefore, there is a growing awareness that one must take care of their health.
As a prospective veterinarian, Wilcken not only takes care of his own bees. He is the official veterinarian in Berlin. He needs his bee expertise, for example, when beekeepers want to move their bee colonies. “For example, I have to be able to assess whether there are signs of American foulbrood so that they don’t carry any diseases around,” says Wilcken. His work is also important for honey to be a safe food.
Specialist veterinarians for bees are still rare
While bees and beekeeping are growing in popularity, bee doctors are still a small group. According to the statistics of the Federal Chamber of Veterinarians for 2020, there are just 17 veterinarians nationwide who specialize in bees. Nine of them have a specialist title, the other eight have an additional title “bees”.
Like Björn Wilcken, many of them work in the public sector or in laboratories. Hardly anyone has a typical small animal practice or driving experience. “The business idea of the bee practice is honorable, but does not make business sense,” says Wilcken. Among other things, because beekeepers can usually obtain medicines freely.
Important aspects: food, flight behavior and location
Working as a bee doctor is also different than working with dogs, cats, horses, pigs or cattle. Blood tests or listening with a stethoscope are not possible with these special patients. “We look less at the bee individually and more at the entire social structure, including the beehive,” says Wilcken. He pays attention to aspects such as: Are the bees flying calmly or excitedly? Do they have enough food? Are honeycombs moldy? Does the queen lay enough eggs? What is the location environment like? Then he takes samples, if necessary: from honey, honeycomb, forage ring or even dead bees.
If a disease needs to be treated, for example, an antidote can be sprayed in the beehive. However, since there are only a few medicines available for bees, it is important to prevent diseases such as Varroa mite infestation. This parasite weakens the bees and can also transmit disease-causing viruses.
The fact that Wilcken can diagnose and treat bee diseases is due to his own commitment. Traditionally, bees are only taught as part of parasitology or as an elective in veterinary training, says Heike Aupperle-Lellbach. The veterinarian was the first specialist veterinarian for bees in Germany. A few years ago, when she was a research associate at the University of Leipzig, she initiated training to become a bee veterinarian in Germany.
Specialist group for bees in the DVG
Aupperle-Lellbach complains that, for example, only beekeepers and biologists are asked about new laws. “They do a great job, but combating animal diseases, food law or drug law are veterinary issues.”
In order to strengthen the importance of bees in veterinary medicine, she initiated a specialist group for bees in the German Veterinary Medical Society (DVG) in 2014. Björn Wilcken now leads the group. All the contact details of the veterinary bee experts are listed on the website of the specialist group – in the hope that the veterinarians will be contacted and involved in the fight against American foulbrood, for example.
“But we have to admit that we don’t have as many bee doctors as we need,” says Wilcken. According to Aupperle-Lellbach, this could change if the veterinary associations made more individual solutions possible in order to recognize achievements for specialist training. According to her own statements, she was only able to get the title because the veterinary association recognized her self-study – after all, there was no training yet. The Academy for Veterinary Training (ATF) of the Federal Chamber of Veterinarians has been offering training for veterinarians on bee topics since 2015.
Further training after graduation only at a few institutions
The fact that bee experts are still a rarity is not only the case in Germany. “In the EU, bee science receives less attention than other disciplines in veterinary studies,” concluded an international research group in a review published in 2019. Laboratory animal science or fish, for example, would be discussed more strongly. Bee mortality is high due to various influences such as the use of pesticides and climate change. According to the study, post-graduation training is only available at 19 institutions across Europe.
Hobby beekeepers and official doctor Wilcken also sees the bee veterinarians as networkers who want to combine their expertise with the knowledge of other bee experts. “The bee is too diverse a creature to be assigned to just one occupational group,” says Wilcken. “If everyone brings something to the buffet, then it will be a great evening.”