Well-Being

A Therapy With Lots of Sting

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By Mary Carpenter

HONEYBEE VENOM—and the possible uses of apitoxin in bee sting therapy—has appeared in Covid news since early 2020 when a Chinese survey found more than 5,000 beekeepers who appeared immune to the infection. And while German researchers in Offenburg and the University of Jena found evidence to the contrary, they suggested bee venom could help treat Covid—if administered during the infection, “preferably at the start.”

The storied protection of beekeepers from a wide array of infections—as well as the use of bee venom in treating joint pain caused by both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS)—has stimulated interest in bee venom therapy (BVT) for thousands of years. According to the theory, bee venom, or apitoxin, causes irritation and inflammation as part of an allergic reaction—revving-up the immune system, which makes it better at fighting infection. The venom also spurs an anti-inflammatory response, which in turn combats the inflammation responsible for symptoms and damage in many autoimmune diseases.

Apitherapy treats both those symptoms related to a diagnosis like MS as well as many that cannot be confirmed by conventional medical testing and thus are often dismissed by physicians. Most of these symptoms—most commonly pain, fatigue, and cognitive problems— rely on self-reporting by sufferers; therefore, so do the relief and other improvements for which sufferers credit alternative therapies.

The powerful placebo effect may play a significant role in these benefits, but conventional, rigorous scientific methods have failed to document measurable improvements. Extensive reviews of studies on MS patients concluded that bee venom was ineffective; and one study in the Netherlands on 24 MS patients found “no beneficial effects” evident on MRIs, and participants reported “no improvement in their disability, fatigue or quality of life.”

An episode of the Netflix series “(Un)Well” in 2016 renewed interest in bee venom therapy, portraying enthusiasts of its use both in anti-aging creams and in treatments using direct stings from bees. The episode follows a young woman who reports suffering for years from undiagnosed Lyme disease, as she receives treatment at California-based Heal Hive— where bees are held against her back using tweezers until each one stings and ejects its venom.

Chronic Lyme symptoms—cognitive impairment, fatigue, and vision and other complaints—may be due to the persistence in the body of Lyme bacteria, Borrelia, at levels undetectable by medical testing as well as inaccessible to antibiotic treatment. Laboratory studies at the University of New Haven showed “significant effects” of bee venom on the bacteria compared to those of antibiotics.

Among 40 patients with enduring Lyme symptoms who received BVT in a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Cellular Immunology, two recovered fully after 2.5 years; 8 recovered 85-90% after one year; and the rest showed lessening of symptoms. According to the study leader, “bee venom therapist” Amber Rose, in the control group of 20 patients who received antibiotic treatment, “Lyme symptoms worsened.”

Among active components in bee venom—enzymes, amino acids, hyaluronidase—the most active in fighting infection may be the peptide melittin, the most toxic compound in bee venom that can “induce wide anti-inflammatory effects,” according to an Overview article by researchers in France and Lebanon. In laboratory studies, melittin has protected mice exposed to “lethal doses of influenza A H1N1 virus.”

“Bee venom acupuncture” (BVA) involves injections of venom at acupuncture points relevant to specific symptoms or diseases—with the idea of adding healing effects of the venom to the mechanical benefits of acupuncture stimulation. And homeopathic preparations such as Apis mellifica employ the entire bee—ground-up and added to a solution that is then diluted to such a degree that “so many times …we are only eating the idea and the energy of the bee,” according to Healthy With Honey.

For Covid patients, bee venom ingredients can “modulate the body’s immune system and improve/facilitate healing,” according to researchers in Edinburgh and elsewhere, who contend that its “strong anti-inflammatory action…could support recovery… against Covid-19.”

The University of California at Davis, a center for honeybee therapy research, has hosted several “Covid-19 Symposiums,” during which entomologist Norman Gary called BVT “a new tool in the search for new ways to prevent infection with Covid-19.” Gary, “known internationally as “The Bee Man,” holds two Guinness World records: one for holding 109 bees inside his closed mouth for 10 seconds; and the other for creating the “bee suit,” a cluster of “more than 87 pounds of bees on a friend.”

But killing honeybees—whether using the whole bee or the venom—is a major concern with apitherapy, because these bees contribute to about 80% of the pollination of flowers, fruits and vegetables, and populations have declined dramatically in recent years. Whether venom is obtained directly from a stinging bee or extracted using an electric stimulus and then injected, the bee dies within 18 to 114 hours. (Venom from wasps, in the same order as bees, contains many of the same compounds, but not melittin.)

Apitherapy products that do not require killing the bees include royal jelly—a milky substance fed to bee larvae that could develop into the queen bee; pollen—collected in a narrow trap that removes pollen as bees return to the hive; propolis—a resin-like material, dubbed “bee glue,” collected by the bees from trees to use in creating and repairing hives; and beeswax—produced by bees’ bodies and combined with honey to create combs for hives.

When the German researchers surveyed beekeepers, they found 45 infected with Covid and two who had died but concluded that “since the antiviral effects of bee venom have been found in several studies, we cannot exclude that there could be a direct… alleviating effect when bee venom is administered during the infection.”

For an alternate explanation of the lower rates of beekeepers’ susceptibility to Covid and other infections, however, these researchers referred to a study on beekeeper personalities—which can combine two “archetypes:” “social” and, the more dominant, “predominantly investigative individuals, which means that they are quite inquisitive and curious people that often like to spend time alone with their thoughts.”

Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical subjects in health and medicine. 

 



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