Medicinal Use of Bee Venom
In many cases, whenever a medicinal use for a product transcends centuries, there’s often a kernel of scientific basis for it. Such may be the case for bee venom.
The medicinal use of bee venom dates back thousands of years, by some accounts as far back as the Stone Age. Certainly, it was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, among other places. The healing properties of bee products are included in many religious texts, including the Veda, Bible, and Quran.
In Western medicine, bee venom was “rediscovered” in 1888 when a clinical study was conducted in Europe on its effect on rheumatism. It was also observed that beekeepers hardly ever suffered from joint problems or rheumatism.
More recently, the medicinal use of bee venom is the focus of serious scientific study for its anticoagulant and anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is part of a body’s protective defense against harmful stimuli, but chronic inflammation (in addition to being highly painful) can lead to several diseases. Bee venom has been linked to the treatment of such inflammatory and neurodegenerative disorders as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, hay fever, lupus, sciatica, low back pain, tennis elbow, bursitis, tendonitis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, nerve pain, dissolving scar tissue, gout, epilepsy, shingles, and burns. Some claim bee venom has beneficial anti-cancer and anti-viral potential against prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, and HIV. There are also claims bee venom can beneficially stimulate the heart, lower blood pressure, and overcome asthma, headaches, and insomnia.
It’s important to recognize the therapeutic benefits are still contradictory and, at present, have no scientific basis. Therefore, this article should not be construed as offering medical advice.
In addition to 88% water, bee venom contains 18 different compounds that possess pharmaceutical properties, including melittin (the component most responsible for causing pain when stung), adolapin (which has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties), and apamine (a mild neurotoxin). The toxicity of the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) is considered twice as high as that of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).
The most abundant active component of the venom is melittin, which has many useful properties, including potent anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral actions. The mechanism by which the components of bee venom work together to alleviate symptoms is unknown. Contact with bee venom produces a complex cascade of reactions in the human body. Some of the components have strong neurotoxic and immunogenic effects (which is why certain people are deathly allergic to the venom).
It is not so much that the components of bee venom directly affect the human body; rather, it’s how the body’s immune system reacts to the venom that may prove beneficial in certain circumstances — in other words, helping the body heal itself. Evidence suggests venom therapy stimulates the release of cortisol production, a natural anti-inflammatory agent. Melittin (the major venom component) has been shown to suppress inflammation by inhibiting certain destructive enzymatic activities.
Traditionally, bee venom was administered by holding a live bee with tweezers and placing the insect on the joint or another ailing body part. At that point, the bee reflexively stings. Today it’s possible to administer bee venom with a syringe, though this is a more costly procedure due to the difficulties in collecting venom. Bee venom administered through acupuncture points produced a strong therapeutic effect compared to non-acupoint areas.
Bee venom therapy comes with a serious risk of an allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock, which can result in death if not treated immediately. About 1% of the population is deathly allergic to bee venom, with the danger growing with increasing stings. Venom therapy should not be undertaken without the supervision of a healthcare professional (and the proximity of a bee-sting kit containing a syringe with a dose of epinephrine as well as antihistamine tablets). In other words, venom therapy should be done under medical care and by prescription from a doctor.
There is no standardized practice for the medicinal administration of bee venom. Some say the sting must be given at an acupuncture location, while others say location isn’t important. Some say only a few stings are necessary; others claim hundreds are required. Homeopaths theorize that bee sting therapy stresses the body’s immune system, thus causing it to come back stronger; however, this theory has not been scientifically studied. This is why venom, if used medicinally, should be administered under the care of health professionals. No one should willingly subject themselves to hundreds of stings in the hopes their body’s immune system will benefit, especially since such a high dose may well be fatal even if the patient is not allergic.
There are certain protocols for bee venom therapy followed by healthcare providers and apitherapists. The first is to determine whether the patient is allergic, followed by administering a small amount of venom intradermally (between layers of the skin). If no allergic reaction develops, the apitherapist will administer one or two stings. After this, the therapy is carried out every other day by gradually increasing the number of stings. The condition determines the length of treatment.
Bee venom is thought to be most effective when it comes directly from a live bee during the late spring to early fall when the high pollen sources allow the bee to provide the most potent venom. Alternately, bee venom may be sold as pure liquid venom or an injectable solution (an expensive option) or, more commonly, in dry crystalline form. Creams, liniments, ointments, balms, moisturizers, lotions, lozenges, and tablets are available with reduced potency. There are no official quality-control standards since bee venom is not recognized as an official drug.
The list of potential benefits of bee venom is lengthy, if anecdotal. It should be underscored that bee venom treatments are often accompanied by improvements in nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle improvements.
At least 1,700 scientific papers have been published on the various effects of bee venom, most of which concentrate on the physiological effects of individual components (such as membrane destruction, toxicity, blocking of enzyme reactions, etc.). Ironically this foundation of scientific literature has done little to verify the therapeutic claims attributed to bee venom. However, there is increasing pressure to conduct clinical and large-scale tests of venom therapy to confirm some of the anecdotal benefits.
If you are subject to inflammatory issues and feel bee venom might be a helpful treatment, be smart and do so under the supervision of a medical professional.
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.