People who use bee venom for medicinal purposes don’t wait around for random insect attacks. Using long tweezers, they pick up live honey bees (which they’ve usually raised themselves), put the insects next to their skin, and let them do what comes naturally. You might have thought that your single encounter with a bee was enough, but people undergoing apitherapy may get stung 80 times a day or more.
Why would anyone subject himself to such pain? Because bee stings are thought to help ease the symptoms of a wide variety of diseases, including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, and fibromyalgia; they’re also thought to promote desensitization to bee stings. These claims don’t come from beekeepers looking for a profit; they’re made by patients whose experience with bee venom has turned them into believers. One woman says that 80 stings every other day helped reverse her rheumatoid arthritis. A woman with multiple sclerosis found that the leg spasms she’d been having calmed down after she started using bees to sting herself a few times each day.
Some doctors, particularly in Eastern Europe, have reported using injections of bee venom to successfully treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Personal testimonials are one thing, but careful scientific studies are the real test. And so far, studies conducted on animals and in test tubes suggest that bee venom may have some ability to lessen the pain and inflammation of arthritis. In 1988, researchers at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki in Greece reported that bee stings greatly slowed the progress of an arthritis-like disease in rats. The Greek scientists, along with researchers at Montreal General Hospital, have also reported that venom slows the production of interleukin-1, a compound that helps fuel arthritic pain and inflammation. More recent studies in South Korea have revealed how melittin — an important compound in bee venom — blocks inflammation. Their study showed significant anti-arthritic effects in mice.
But although some research suggests that bee venom given by injection may be effective in treating tendonitis, fibromyositis, and rheumatoid arthritis, among other conditions, the results are not conclusive. Human trials on bee venom and arthritis, for example, have been few and far between, and the results haven’t been encouraging. Back in 1941 (did we mention the investigations were few and far between?), a study published in the American Journal of Medical Sciences found that arthritis patients who got infections of bee venom didn’t improve any faster than other patients. The lead researcher called the results “very discouraging,” and no human trial since has led to a different conclusion. With the recent arrival of several effective drugs for both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, research on bee venom as an arthritis remedy has slowed to a trickle, and we may never be sure whether many stings are better than no stings at all.
When it comes to multiple sclerosis, the picture is still hazier. Nobody knows how bee venom affects the disease in humans, and studies on laboratory animals have only just begun. One very small human study was published in 2005 in the journal Neurology, but scientists concluded that bee sting therapy did not reduce disease activity, disability, or fatigue and did not improve quality of life. Researchers at M.C.P. Hahnemann University in Philadelphia recently started giving bee venom to mice with a disease similar to MS. The preliminary results suggest that the venom doesn’t diminish any MS symptoms in mice; in fact, some of the mice treated with bee venom displayed symptoms more severe than those of mice that got no treatment at all.
Claims that bee venom can ameliorate other diseases, including fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression, are based entirely on personal observation and not on science.
The benefits of this therapy are still uncertain, but the dangers are clear. Approximately 2 percent of people have allergic reactions to stings from bees and wasps. A severe reaction after just only three or four bee stings is extremely rare, but the danger grows with the number of stings. (Beekeepers and their families in particular are likely to be highly sensitive to bee venom). A person who’s having a severe reaction to a bee sting may develop hives on the skin and swelling around the eyes, lips, throat, and tongue. He or she may vomit, slur spoken words, show signs of mental confusion, and even struggle to breathe. Soon the person may lose consciousness. These are signs of anaphylactic shock, a condition that can be fatal if not treated quickly. If you notice these signs, call 911 right away.
Anyone undergoing bee-venom therapy should have a bee sting kit handy. The kit includes a syringe and a dose of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), a drug that can save your life if you go into anaphylactic shock. It’s also a good idea for a beginner get a single “test sting” on the knee or forearm before undergoing a full bee barrage. But remember, the fact that your body tolerated the first 49 stings doesn’t automatically mean it can handle the 50th.