Medicinal uses of bee venom

by Rick Alan

Most people associate bees with honey or pollen. But another bee product—bee venom—may be valuable in treating certain illnesses.

We all know about the medicinal effects of bee honey. Indeed, tea with honey has long been a remedy of choice for sore throats. And some nutritionists consider bee pollen to be a near perfect source of protein. Bee venom, however, is looked upon with some trepidation—not surprising, given that most peoples only experience is via a painful bee sting. For thousands of years, though, the medicinal benefits of bee venom have been touted throughout the world. And while these medicinal effects have yet to be scientifically proven, in recent years, the use of bee venom to treat various ailments (apitherapy) is actively being studied.

Ancient medicinal uses

The medicinal use of bee venom apparently dates back as far as ancient Egypt and is reported in the history of Europe and Asia. Charlemagne and Ivan the Terrible, for example, reportedly used bee venom to treat joint ailments. In more "modern" times, interest in the effects of bee venom was renewed in the 1860s, with the publication of a clinical study conducted in Europe on its effect on rheumatism. Since then, interest in bee venom treatment has ebbed and flowed.

Current medicinal claims

In recent years, however—with the increasing advent and acceptance of natural medicines—interest in the therapeutic value of bee venom has grown. Anecdotal evidence from a small number of unpublished studies has failed to confirm that bee venom has any real effectiveness in treating either arthritis or multiple sclerosis.

In addition to its possible effectiveness in treating these two conditions, bee venom is purported to be useful in treating:
  • chronic injuries such as bursitis and tendinitis
  • cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension
  • pulmonary conditions such as asthma
  • removal of scar tissue
  • skin conditions such as eczema
  • hearing loss
  • bone healing
  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
However, most of the evidence of bee venoms medicinal properties remains anecdotal, and the clinical studies that have been conducted are not scientifically conclusive.

Components of bee venom

A complex mixture of numerous compounds, scientists dont definitively understand how bee venom acts on the human body. However, a number of components of bee venom have been identified and studied including: Mellitin -
  • The most prevalent substance in bee venom. It is believed to help induce healing by causing the body to release the natural healing compounds ACTH and cortisol. (Clinical studies on laboratory animals have shown that mellitin has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.)
Hyaluronidase -
  • Believed to help facilitate the removal of toxic substances from damaged areas of the body.
  • Has both anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-blocking) effects.
  • Believed to improve nerve transmission.

A sting or a shot: administering bee venom

Before the invention of the syringe, bee venom was always administered—believe it or not—directly from bees. Today, in some cases, it is still administered in the same way. The live bee is held (with tweezers or some other small instrument) by the person administering the bee venom, who then places the bee on the part of the patients body to be treated, at which point the bee reflexively stings. Depending on the condition, treatment can include anywhere from two to three stings over a course of five or so sessions, to five stings up to three times per week over the course of a number of months.

There are a few medical doctors who use bee venom therapy to treat some conditions—most commonly, arthritis. These doctors inject bee venom via the less painful method of a syringe, using bee venom "harvested" from bees. The harvesting is done via electrified collection boxes that stimulate bees to release their venom. The boxes are placed over the entrance to beehives. Much of the harvested bee venom comes from the apiaries of Charles Mraz, a Vermont beekeeper who has been in the forefront of the popularization of bee venom therapy over the past 50 years.

One interesting side note. Dr. June Riedlinger, director of the Center for Integrative Therapies and Pharmaceutical Care at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences points out, "Alcohol and tincture of iodine rapidly destroy the active components of bee venom, so they should not be used [as an antiseptic] at the site of the injection. Instead, ether or benzine may be used as an antiseptic to swab the injection site."

Allergic reactions and drug interactions

The greatest risk of bee venom therapy is the risk of an anaphylactic allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock, which can cause a person to stop breathing. If not treated immediately, anaphylactic shock can result in death. Though only a small percentage of the population is allergic to bee venom, it is nevertheless imperative—whether receiving apitherapy from live bees or via a syringe—that the person administering the venom has a bee sting kit on site, and knows how to use it.

While anecdotal, there have been reports that the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, can compromise the supposed effectiveness of bee venom therapy.

Considering bee venom therapy—

If youre considering bee venom therapy, you must recognize that such therapy is a natural treatment for which, to date, there is no scientific evidence definitively proving its medicinal effectiveness. Before trying this therapy, consult with your physician, and remember that this therapy should be used in addition to, not instead of, other treatments prescribed by your doctor. And never have bee venom injections without a bee sting kit (and someone who knows how to use it) readily available.