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...
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 people's 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. However, there are no double-blind, placebo-controlled studies validating its effectiveness. A randomized trial done in 2005 did not show any effectiveness for bee venom in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. However, another study done that same year did show the bee venom may be effective in treating arthritis.
Besides arthritis, bee venom is purported to be useful for treating the following:
Chronic injuries such as bursitis and tendonitis
Cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension
Pulmonary conditions such as asthma
Removal of scar tissue
Skin conditions such as eczema
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
However, there is no meaningful scientific evidence to indicate that bee venom is effective for any of these conditions.
Components of Bee Venom
Scientists do not definitively understand how bee venom, which is a complex mixture of numerous compounds, acts on the human body. However, a number of components of bee venom that have been identified and studied include the following:
Mellitin—The most prevalent substance in bee venom. It is hypothesized to help induce healing through anti-inflammatory effects.
Adolapin—This may have both anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-blocking) effects.
Apamin—This substance may improve nerve transmission.
More likely than any of the effects produced by these substances, however, is the possibility that the body has an immune reaction to bee venom that proves beneficial in certain circumstances
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 patient's 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. Most of 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.
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 you're considering bee venom therapy, you must recognize that such therapy is a natural treatment for which, to date, there is no rigorous scientific evidence definitively proving its medicinal effectiveness. Before trying this therapy, consult with your doctor, 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.
American Apitherapy Society
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Canada Safety Council
Cuende, E, Fraguas, J, Pena, JE, et al. Beekeeper'arthropathy. J Rheumatol. 1999; 26:2684.
Lee JD, Park HJ, Chae Y, et al. An overview of bee venom acupuncture in the treatment of arthritis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005;2:79-84.
Wesselius T, Heersema DJ, Mostert JP, et al. A randomized crossover study of bee sting therapy for multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2005.
Last reviewed April 2009 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 6/9/2009