Honeybees are truly miraculous creatures, and in addition to being all-important pollinators they manufacture several health-giving products (apitherapy), such as honey, propolis, bee pollen, and bee wax. Lesser known is the medicinal use of honeybee venom therapy (BVT) that has been practiced cross-culturally for centuries. BVT, the use of live bee stings (or injectable bee venom), has been used more than 2000 years in treating numerous types of acute and chronic afflictions. BVT was practiced in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China — three Great Civilizations are known for their highly developed medical systems. Hippocrates recognized the healing virtues of honeybee venom for treating arthritis and other joint problems. Throughout the world, physicians are now using BVT with success in the treatment of arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, autoimmune diseases, psoriasis, epilepsy, asthma, and even certain types of cancer. The world scientific literature contains more than 1500 articles on the medicinal value of BVT.
Honeybee venom is a complex mixture of chemicals, including peptides and enzymes, which have strong beneficial neurological, immunological, and anti-inflammatory effects. Honeybee venom contains more than 18 active components, of which mellitin (40-50%) is the main active peptide that exhibits anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-carcinogenic properties. Other therapeutic bee venom chemicals are Adolapin and Apamin. Adolapin acts as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, whereas Apamin helps to increase cortisol production in the adrenal gland.
Administering Honeybee Venom
Traditionally, honeybee venom has been administered with live bees by stimulating them to sting in the affected area or in traditional Chinese medicine administered on a specific acupuncture point. Current day variety of honeybee venom products includes injectable liquid venom, creams, ointments, and oral homeopathic preparations. Practitioners may choose the most suitable application for the condition being treated owing to the individual characteristics of the patient.
Next to the effect of a live honeybee, injectable venom solution is a standard method to administer BVT. The injectable venom solution is prepared from pure honeybee venom. The solution is administered just under the skin to imitate the effect of a bee sting. Another popular way of administering BVT is with topical creams and ointments applied to the affected body part. Before injection or administration of honeybee venom, it is essential to have epinephrine on hand in the rare case of an allergic reaction.
Collecting Honeybee Venom
Honeybee venom is synthesized in the venom glands of worker and queen bees and stored in their venom sacs. During the stinging process, it is expressed through the sting apparatus. The venom is commercially collected by means of electric shock stimulation. Bees come into contact with a collector frame that is covered with a wire grid and receive a mild electrical shock causing them to release their venom. The venom is then allowed to air dry and is then gathered and processed. Previous venom collection methods killed bees; however, bee venom collected by the electro-stimulant method does not harm the bee.
Reactions and Sensitivity
Honeybee venom reactions and sensitivity for most individuals, normally include some redness, swelling, and itching that usually resolves in a few hours. However, in the allergic individual, a more long-lasting and severe reaction may occur. Many individuals are allergic to a wasp, hornet, and yellow jacket stings, but few are allergic to honeybee venom. Because of their vegetarian nature honeybee venom is less toxic and chemically differs from their carnivorous cousins. It is estimated that honeybee stings account for less than 5% of all adverse stinging insect reactions. The risk of an anaphylactic allergic reaction to honeybee venom is rare, but real.
No official body in the US has sanctioned BVT as a recognized treatment modality. Bee venom has been approved by the FDA for de-sensitization purposes only. Thus, BVT is considered, from both the legal and medical viewpoint, an experimental approach.