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by Glenn Rothfeld M.D.

Apitherapy, the medicinal use of honey bee products, has been practiced since ancient times. In the modern world honey bee venom has found wide uses in treating arthritis and other inflammatory and degenerative diseases. The world scientific literature contains more than 1500 articles on bee venom. The French and Russian equivalents of the N.I.H. have been involved in clinical studies of honey bee venom, and in the U.S. the Army has looked extensively at the chemical compounds in bee venom.

Honey bee venom contains at least 18 active substances. Melittin, the most prevalent substance, is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory agents known (100 times more potent than hydrocortisol). Adolapin is another strong anti-inflammatory substance, and inhibits cyclooxygenase; it thus has analgesic activity as well. Apamin inhibits complement C3 activity, and blocks calcium-dependent potassium channels, thus enhancing nerve transmission. Other substances, such as Compound X, Hyaluronidase, Phospholipase A2, Histamine, and Mast Cell Degranulating Protein (MSDP), are involved in the inflammatory response of venom, with the softening of tissue and the facilitation of flow of the other substances. Finally, there are measurable amounts of the neurotransmitters Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Seratonin.

Bee Venom therapy can be useful in a wide variety of medical situations. Charles Mraz, a beekeeper in Middlebury, Vermont who has popularized bee venom therapy for the past 60 years, says that it is reasonable to try bee venom therapy in any clinical situation where nothing else works. However, there are four situations which are most frequent:

1. Arthritis and other systemic inflammations. Bee venom therapy can be useful in both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, helping with both pain and swelling. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatoid nodules can lessen in size. Other connective tissue diseases such as scleroderma have been (anecdotally) helped by BVT. Even systemic inflammations not related to joints, such as ulcerative colitis or even asthma, may warrant a trial of bee venom. This is presumedly due to stimulation of endogenous cortisol through the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis.

2. Acute and chronic injuries. Bursitis, tendonitis and other areas of injury respond well to bee venom therapy. In this case, the effect is probably a local anti- inflammatory effect, involving the humoral and cellular immune responses to a foreign protein. Chronic back and neck pain may respond, as can other aches and pains.

3. Scar tissue. Keloids and other scar tissue are broken down and softened by the substances in the venom, and can flatten out and fade in color. Internalscar tissue, such as adhesions from previous surgery, may respond to treatment over the area.

4. Multiple Sclerosis. This use of bee venom is poorly understood, and needs to be studied further. Recently, the MS Associat ion of America awarded a grant to an immunologist, Dr. John Santilli, to prepare the venom in extract form to study its effect on MS patients. Hundreds of patients with MS currently seek out bee venom therapists and beekeepers. The treatment is prolongued and not for the squeamish, but the common responses are increased stability, less fatigue, and less spasm.

Bee Venom Therapy can be performed by a beekeeper, or by a patient or partner who is taught to use the bees. A bee is removed from a jar or hive with tweezers, held over an area of the body, which it then stings. The number, sites, and frequency of the stings depend on the patient and the problem. A simple tendonitis might just take a few stings, perhaps 2-3 at a session for 2-5 sessions. A more chronic problem like arthritis can take 2-3 times per week, several stings at a time, for 1-3 months. Multiple sclerosis takes months to respond, though sometimes patients feel more energetic after a few times. MS patients who use bee venom insist that one must keep it up 2-3 times per week for 6 months in order to give it a full trial.

There are physicians around who use bee venom therapy in their practices. This is done by obtaining the venom (in sterilized vials) and injecting it under the skin, sometimes mixed with a local anesthetic. Some say that collecting the venom in vials loses some of its potency, but in many situations this is more realistic than finding a beekeeper or handling bees.

Side effects of bee venom therapy are generally limited, since the inflammation, swelling, itching, etc. are desired effects. However, the risk of an anaphylactic allergic reaction to bee venom is real, and it is always wise to have a bee sting allergy kit on hand. Fortunately, most "bee" sting allergic reactions are actually to yellow jackets or wasps. Honey bee venom does not necessarily cross-react, and some studies show honey bee stings to account for less than 5% of all adverse stinging insect reactions. In addition, many people who have had severe local reactions to bee stings, which an apitherapist would consider a positive effect, are incorrectly considered to have allergy to bees.

Finding a beekeeper who is willing to sting someone is a matter of calling local beekeepers and organizations. There is also the American Apitherapy Society, headquartered in Vermont. Charles Mraz of Middlebury Vermont is also a source of wisdom and information regarding apitherapy. Books of interest include Bees Donīt Get Arthritis by Fred Malone (Academy Books) and Bee in Balance by Amber Rose (Starpoint Ltd).

Some related sources of information.

The American Apitherapy Society,Inc.
P.O. Box 54
Hartland Four Corners, VT.05049,
(Voice) 800-823-3460 (Fax) 802-436-2827
(International) 802-436-2708

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