A bee doctor's view on life, nature and a planet in need

How veterinarians can extend their expertise to help heal the environment

Published: April 22, 2024
By Terry Ryan Kane

Photo by Scotty Slade
Dr. Terry Ryan Kane, a veterinarian with expertise in pollinator health, calls addressing climate change "an everyone-everywhere mission."

Like many veterinarians, I grew up with animals of all kinds. My grandfather's family were cattle ranchers in Wyoming, and as a child, I remember seeing hundreds of antelope springing over miles of open grasslands under the bluest of skies. I had my own pony and lots of dogs and cats. As a teen, I relished working in the stable, taking care of the horses, leading trail rides and playing with the barn cats and goats.

My carefree childhood seemed suddenly distant as the space race of the early 1960s was broadcast on televisions in our school classrooms. The social and cultural changes taking place alongside huge leaps in scientific and technological innovation were not lost on me. Pictures of Earth from space brought a heightened awareness of our planet's vulnerabilities and of the ramifications brought by the boom of postwar technology, building, science and industry.

The '60s were also tumultuous times with strong citizen engagement. Millions of people gave new life to our nation's ideals of human rights and environmental justice. Several watershed developments came about in the early 1970s. Congress passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and Earth Day was born. Often tumult leads to needed change.

I write this today because we are again in a pivotal time of technological, scientific and cultural change that compels citizen engagement, including by the veterinary profession.

My personal journey to this point was nonlinear. After college, I attended graduate school in ecology, having plans to study animal behavior and wildlife conservation, which were relatively young fields at the time. I used insects as animal models to study population dynamics in response to fluctuations in food supply. In the 1970s, scientists observed insect populations were moving north and to higher altitudes but didn't appreciate at the time what a few millimeters or centimeters meant. Now we are measuring species migration changes in meters and miles and realize it's due to climate change.

I continued my studies at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, intending to apply the ecological principles I'd learned to mammals. I still kept my interest in insects, learning beekeeping from the university extension service and assisting entomology students' summer fieldwork.

The demands of school, life and the reality of earning a living ended up pointing me to small animal clinical practice. Many years later, my children grown, I pivoted to policy work. Through the American Veterinary Medical Association, I was fortunate to receive a Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellowship that took me to Washington, D.C., for more than a year starting in the summer of 2010.

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There, I worked in the office of U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a time when lawmakers were discussing renewal of the farm bill, as well as legislation to curb antimicrobial drug resistance. During the same period, the federal Food and Drug Administration was considering a rule to put the use of antimicrobial drugs used in livestock fully under veterinary oversight, known as the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). My office learned I had been a beekeeper and asked me to brief the Senate and House agriculture committees on honeybees and the importance of pollination to food crops. Pollination services is a multibillion-dollar industry and essential to food production and security.

The VFD rule, adopted in 2017, included honeybees as livestock. That spurred a need for veterinary education in the lives of these insect pollinators and their impact on food security. Honeybees are considered our No. 1 pollinator because we manage them. Conveniently, honeybees live in colonies, enabling us to keep them in constructed hives that we can inspect and treat for disease. Millions of bees in hive boxes are transported on semis around the country to pollinate crops, including almonds, apples, cherries, blueberries and cranberries.

Unfortunately, pests, pesticides, habitat disruption, disease and climate change (floods, drought, intense storms, fires and smoke) result in the death of 40% of the national bee herd per year on average. If that was happening with any other livestock animal, our profession would be mobilized.

As an introduced species in North America that is managed, the honeybee (Apis mellifera) is not endangered. However, its ongoing losses reflect what is happening to other insect populations.

There are billions of important animal pollinators — butterflies, beetles, moths, wasps, ants, bats and birds among them. Insect populations are in decline around the world from the same stressors that kill honeybees. Animals that depend on insects for food (think birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles) are also in decline. Altogether, declines in biodiversity threaten ecosystem stability.

When the FDA's VFD rule came out seven years ago, most livestock sectors expected it, but the beekeeping industry did not. Few honeybee producers had a relationship with a veterinarian experienced with their species. To assist the pollinator industry and train veterinarians, a small group of veterinarians at North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine that happened to be beekeepers started the Honey Bee Veterinary Consortium to help meet the demand.

Today, through the efforts of the HBVC, the AVMA, the Veterinary Information Network (an online community for the profession) and entomologist partners, along with government grant support to several extension services, veterinarians are getting training and hands-on experience in bee health and husbandry. The first textbook published in North America on bees, Honey Bee Medicine for the Veterinary Practitioner, came out in 2021. (I was a co-editor.)

In veterinary school today, many, if not all, students are introduced to the principle of One Health — the understanding that the welfare of humans, other animals and the environment are inextricably connected. Veterinary medicine has been a successful One Health partner in combating zoonotic disease, but we have not been strong partners on the environment. That is changing. Google "vet med and climate change" now, and you will find books, papers and several organizations that are tackling climate change within the profession around the world.

Addressing climate change is not the sole responsibility of governments or businesses; it is an everyone-everywhere mission. What can we veterinarians do?

I think of where we live and work as our personal ecosystems, where even small changes can have significance. There are many ways, both inside and outside of our homes, schools and workplaces to make our environments healthier and more sustainable.

We can make our yards, campuses and clinic grounds more biodiverse, more pollinator-friendly and more resilient to unpredictable weather. Clients (and employees) will be impressed to see your gardens having native plants, bird feeders and water collection systems with signage that you are doing your part. Let the dandelions grow! They are the first spring meal for bees.

You won't need lawn mowers or leaf blowers with a seasonal pollinator garden, which can double as a rain garden. Install a few electric vehicle chargers at your practice. If you're in an urban area, make room for cargo bicycle parking. Send medications home in paper bags stamped with your logo and an explanation of why you are using paper.

Each year, Earth Day has a theme that focuses on a particular environmental concern. This year's is Planet vs. Plastics, a call to all to reduce use and production of plastics, virtually all of which are made from fossil fuels. Consider: Does your practice sell pet toys made of plastic? Can you find substitutes made of non-plastic materials?

Join with other veterinarians and citizens in your community to create a more sustainable and healthier environment for humans and animals, and support your representatives who work toward these goals.

In many ways, we are fortunate to be living at a time when each of us can help change the trajectory of the health of our Earth.

Terry Ryan Kane, DVM, MS, is a bee veterinarian and environmental consultant based in Michigan. A 1980 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, with a master's from UI in ecology and evolutionary biology, Ryan Kane founded and ran a feline medicine practice for more than 20 years before finding a way to combine her passions for veterinary medicine and the environment.

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