It is probably safe to say that everyone has been stung by a bee at some point in his or her lifetime. And those who have been stung know that it is not a pleasant experience. The initial pain of the sting and the subsequent pain of the swelling that might follow are not things that you would want to subject yourself to on purpose. It may surprise you to learn that people do. It's called Bee Venom Therapy (BVT), which is a form of apitherapy.
BVT is a relatively unstudied and unproven method by which people try to alleviate pain caused by chronic diseases as well as many other medical conditions. The list of chronic conditions that BVT might be effective for is long, but since it is largely unstudied, it is unclear just what it is capable of treating.
This guide will take you through the basics of BVT, such as what therapeutic compounds it is composed of, what medical conditions it might be able to treat, its potential risks and benefits, and how it is administered.
What is Apitherapy?
The word apitherapy comes from the Latin root word “Apis,” which translates as “bee,” so the literal translation of apitherapy is bee therapy. Apitherapy, then, is the use of or practice of using bee products to treat medical conditions. These bee products include anything you could find in a beehive, such as:
- Royal jelly
- Bee venom
Although wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets also belong to the bee family, it is the venom of honey bees (called apitoxin) that is most commonly used in BVT.
The use of apitherapy dates back all the way to ancient Egyptians, who reportedly used it to treat arthritis pain. Today, it is more widely used in Europe and Asia than in America. Not very many practitioners in the United States currently use this treatment method, but it is starting to gain ground, with more researchers looking to study its potential benefits.
Apitherapy is a form of homeopathic medicine; that is, a medical practice based on the principle that the body has the innate ability to heal itself. Those who practice apitherapy would probably tell you that the stings themselves don't matter so much as the venom.
In other words, it doesn’t matter where the sting takes place, as stings delivered to different parts of the body seemingly produce different results. Rather, it is all the components of the venom that help in the healing process by somehow stimulating the body to release natural healing substances to defend itself.
What Therapeutic Compounds are in Bee Venom?
There are more than forty compounds in bee venom, and each one has different effects on the body. Four of the compounds, melittin, hyaluronidase, phospholipase A2, and apamin are listed and explained in further detail below.
Melittin is the main ingredient in bee venom. It makes up between 50 and 55 percent of the venom’s composition and is the substance that causes the most pain at the sting site. Ironically, though, this compound in also an anti-inflammatory and an analgesic (pain reliever). So, painful as it may be, it also has many medicinal uses.
Melittin molecules, when administered at higher concentrations and in the correct conditions, group together and create large holes in the membranes of cells, which weakens their protective barriers, causing them to swell up and explode. As unpleasant as this process sounds, however, it actually makes melittin a powerful antimicrobial that can be used to fight diseases such as Lyme disease, HIV, and cancer.
Some other features of melittin include:
- Expands blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and increasing circulation
- Acts as an immunostimulatory and an immunosuppressive
- Influences the central nervous system
Hyaluronidase contains 382 amino acids and makes up between 1 and 2 percent of the venom’s composition. It is the main allergenic in the venom and dilates the blood vessels, increasing blood flow.
Hyaluronidase acts as a catalyst by accelerating the hydrolysis of proteins, which allows the bee venom to penetrate the tissues faster. It also acts as a spreading factor for the venom by lowering the viscosity—or thickness—of the hyaluronic acid on the skin.
Phospholipase A2 (PLA2) assists melittin in destroying the cells by breaking up the phospholipids, which are the main components of the cell membrane. It makes up 10 to 12 percent of the venom. It also decreases blood coagulation and lowers blood pressure.
Phospholipases are categorized by the type of reactions they cause. There are four classes (A, B, C, and D) and two types of Phospholipase A: A1 and A2. PLA2 has 16 sub-groups, distinguished by their structure, their, source, and their localization. The PLA2 present in bee venom is a group 3 secretory PLA2, which causes allergic reactions.
PLA2 also has the following qualities:
- Prevents the neuronal cell death that is caused by prion peptides
Apamin is a small peptide that consists of only 18 amino acids. It is an anti-inflammatory compound that stimulates the release of cortisone in the adrenal glands of the body. It makes up 2 to 3 percent of the venom.
Apamin is also a neurotoxin. In fact, it is the smallest neurotoxin polypeptide known to man and the only one that can pass through the blood-brain barrier. Its effects on the nervous system include:
- Inhibits certain channels in the central nervous system
- Stimulates central and peripheral effects and increases the central and peripheral pain thresholds
- Enhances the creation of serotonin and dopamine
What Types of Issues Can Bee Venom Treat?
The thing BVT is used for most commonly is to desensitize bee venom allergies. Besides this, though, there are many diseases that bee venom is believed to be capable of treating, but little evidence exists to support a lot of the claims. There are some diseases, however, that have been treated using bee sting therapy and they show great promise and potential.
A Bee Sting for Arthritis?
One of the diseases bee stings could be used for is arthritis. Scientists believe that the analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties in bee venom can be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of arthritis when applied as an acupuncture-type treatment, and research supports this.
One study found that RA patients who were treated with Bee Venom Acupuncture (BVA) two times a week for a duration of three months had lower Tender Joint and Swollen Joint Counts and had less morning stiffness than those who hadn’t received BVA therapy. These results suggest that using bee venom for arthritis could be beneficial.
Because apamin inhibits certain channels in the nervous system, it could be effective in treating Multiple Sclerosis (MS). One of the channels it inhibits is the potassium channel. The potassium channel is the same section of the nerve cell that is inhibited by the drug 4-aminopyridine (4-AP), which has been showing promising results in the treatment of MS symptoms, such as:
- Weakness in the legs
- Difficulty walking
A study on the effects of bee venom on the symptoms of MS showed noticeable improvements in the areas of balancing, coordination, incontinence, muscle strength, fatigue, numbness, and endurance in 68 percent MS patients treated with bee venom. The study revealed the patients' progression: that most went from needing a lot of self-care help to needing very little by the time the trial ended.
Because of its ability to destroy cells, researchers have long looked at bee venom as a potential treatment for cancer. The problem, though, lies in the fact that it can't distinguish between cancer cells and cells of the body. In other words, it destroys not only the cancer cells but also the healthy cells, red blood cells included.
The anti-cancer activity of bee venom has been studied, but no major breakthroughs have yet been discovered. Researchers at Washington University, however, did figure out how to deliver the cell-destroying compound melittin to tumors growing in rats by targeting the cancer cells specifically using nanocarriers, also known as nanobees.
The nanocarriers act as shields to keep the melittin from contacting and destroying the healthy blood cells. The results of this 2009 study offer the most promising evidence that bee venom could be a potentially effective cancer treatment.
How Is Treatment Administered?
You can administer bee venom in several ways. The two most common ways are to have the venom injected with a needle or by an actual bee sting. There are other ways, too, but some aren't as effective, and others aren't as widely available.
This section will go over five ways in which this procedure can be administered: through injection, through bee stings, through cream or ointment, through tablets, or through pills.
The injections feature a venom solution that is concocted from pure bee venom and may be mixed together with other injectable fluids such as:
- Distilled water
- Saline solutions
- Certain oils
Bee venom injections are delivered subcutaneously (that is, in between the layers of the skin) so that it imitates an actual bee sting. Any given injection never contains more venom than the average venom sac of a honey bee.
Bee venom acupuncture is a form of injection that combines BVT with the traditional treatment methods of acupuncture.
In this method, practitioners grip bees with tweezers and place them on the area of the body that is undergoing treatment. Then they stimulate the bee to sting. This is the most efficient method, especially at the end of spring or beginning of autumn, because the venom from a live bee is the most potent during these times. Sometimes, up to 30 or 40 bees are placed on the treatment area at a time.
Cream or ointment
Bee venom is also available in cream and ointment form, but these forms are not as widely available in the U.S. as they are in Europe and Asia. The bee venom in ointments is usually combined with other substances that complement the venom or soften the skin. Such substances include:
- Melted animal fat
- Salicylic acid
One thing to note, though, is that creams and ointments may not be as potent as bee stings and thus may not be as effective.
In some cases, bee venom can be injected into tablets, but certain restrictions, such as the removal of toxic proteins like Melittin and color-coding the different dosages, likely make it less efficient than other methods. It is recommended that if you do use tablets, you should place them under your tongue.
Bee therapy pills are another form in which you can partake in BVT. The pills offer a substitute option for those who don’t like needles. Pills are generally more accessible than other options and are easier to administer. Bee venom pills are not widely available yet, but when that happens, you may be required to have a prescription from a doctor to prevent potential overdoses that can be fatal.
Is Bee Venom Proven?
There isn't really anything in life that is a hundred percent proven. Bee sting therapy is no different. Scientists have conducted hundreds of studies on the effects of BVT in various areas of medicine, but all the results do is suggest that it might be an effective treatment. In fact, most of the studies are inconclusive to one another.
The effectiveness of BVT, then, is mainly taken from anecdotal evidence rather than from scientific evidence. Sami Chugg, for example, claims that her MS symptoms improved and even began to reverse themselves after she underwent BVT.
Another piece of anecdotal evidence comes from an article by Christie Wilcox that covers the story of Ellie Lobel, a woman who contracted Lyme disease from a tick and then was attacked by a colony of Africanized honey bees that miraculously left her cured of her Lyme disease symptoms.
More anecdotal evidence can be found in an unnamed author’s article, where, in a brief section at the beginning, she discusses her experience using BVT to get rid of the chronic pain she was suffering from after she tore her meniscus.
Personal testimonials like the three mentioned above definitely carry persuasive power, but with a lack of conclusive studies, it is unclear whether or not BVT really does have value in the field of medicine. The fact of the matter is that, despite all the research, bee sting therapy is still largely unaccepted as an alternative form of treatment.
Are There Any Medical Risks with Bee Venom Therapy?
Like with any other treatment, bee sting treatment has its risks. The biggest potential risk, or course, is anaphylaxis, or a severe allergic reaction. About 2 million adults and 3 percent of children develop an allergic reaction to bee stings. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Hives or rashes on the skin
- Swelling of the face, lips, tongue, or throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Mental confusion
- Fainting, lightheadedness, or dizziness
- Blue fingertips or lips from inadequate oxygenation
Anaphylaxis, though one of the more serious risks of BVT, is easily counteracted with an injection from an Epi-pen. And all practitioners who do bee sting therapy are required to have a bee sting kit, which includes and Epi-pen Autoinjector, on hand. To prevent anaphylaxis, you should also get an allergy test done before you ever undergo a BVT session to ensure that you are not allergic to bees.
Another potential risk is one that only concerns those with MS: bee venom-induced central nervous system inflammation. Those with MS often endure two different kinds of inflammation: acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) and optic neuritis. ADEM affects the brain and spinal cord, while optic neuritis only affects the nerves that join the eyes to the brain and results in visual impairment.
BVT could make the immune system more active, resulting in increased inflammation. It may even cause optic neuritis in those who don’t have MS.
Some common side effects of BVT include:
- Redness, tenderness, soreness, or swelling at the injection site
- Itching or a mild burning sensation
- Low blood pressure
Other not so common side effects of BVT include:
- Chest tightness
- Heart palpitations
- Dizziness or fainting
- Nausea or vomiting
- Fatigue, drowsiness, or confusion
There are also risks to pregnant women. While it seems to be safe when it is administered by a medical professional and in safe dosages, bee venom can increase the presence of the chemical histamine. This chemical can cause the uterus to contract, which could lead to a miscarriage.
It is recommended that women who are pregnant not partake in BVT, but if for some reason they must, the recommended dosage needs to be cut in half.
A couple of final things to remember: BVT is not a widely accepted treatment and is instead intended to be used as an alternative treatment, administered by a licensed practitioner, for those who do not respond to conventional forms of treatment. Be sure to talk with your doctor and get an allergy test done before starting bee sting therapy.