How Bee Sting Therapy Works

Nobody WANTS to get stung by a bee, right? Actually, yes they do.
Nobody WANTS to get stung by a bee, right? Actually, yes they do. © ERIK DE CASTRO/Reuters/Corbis

It may sound a bit incongruous: Encourage bees to sting you? On purpose? Using toxins to heal what ails us may sound like contradictory, and perhaps even dangerous, advice — but for at least 5,000 years humans have relied on venom, of all things, for medicinal purposes.

Take Mithridates VI of Pontus, Rome's formidable enemy during the first century B.C.E., for example: Steppe viper venom was allegedly used to save him from a life-threatening battlefield wound. Scorpion venom has a long history in both ancient Egyptian medicine and in traditional Chinese medicine. Beekeeping and honey harvesting are seen in artwork dating back to our ancestor's cave painting days, and bee venom is known to have been used in East Asia since the second century B.C.E.


Bee sting therapy, commonly called bee venom therapy (BVT), is the medical use of the toxic compounds in honey-bee venom (BV), also known as apitoxin, in a therapeutic way. BV therapy is part of a larger medical philosophy and treatment called apitherapy (bee therapy), a type of holistic therapy that uses not only bee venom for its healing properties, but several bee products, including beeswax, honey, pollen, propolis (bee glue) and royal jelly in treatments. It was Hungarian immigrant Bodeg Beck who, after meeting beekeeper Charles Mraz, introduced apitherapy to the U.S. in the 1930s, and for more than 60 years Beck used BVT to treat patients with arthritis pain.

The history of venom collection is a fatal tale for honey bees. Bees were forced to sting hard surfaces, such as plastic or rubber, for venom collection, a practice that was fatal to the bee when her stinger inevitably separated from her abdomen after hard-surface-stinging injuries. Alternatively, venom was also harvested by crushing honey bees — a practice which, yes, was also fatal for the bees. Stinging hard surfaces, such as plastic, or thick surfaces, such as human skin, is dangerous for honey bees. While it's possible for the worker bee to sting more than once, it's actually the injury to her stinger apparatus — the venom sac, abdominal muscles and nerve center becoming crushed or dislodged — rather than the act of stinging that's fatal to the bee. Honey bees can sting as many as 10 times under the right circumstances.


Promising Poisons: Compounds in Honey-bee Venom

Most bees aren’t actually very aggressive, so it takes some effort to get them to sting.
Most bees aren’t actually very aggressive, so it takes some effort to get them to sting. © BEAWIHARTA/Reuters/Corbis

Syringes make it easier to inject venom, but before there were needles there were, well, stingers. Modern practitioners often still use the live honey bee herself as the delivery vehicle for venom. Tweezers are used to place and hold the bee directly on the part of the body being treated; in doing so, the bee, instinctively, stings (although some may require a little nudge — most honey bees aren't aggressive until you provoke them).

When bee venom is delivered via syringe, it's first collected not by crushing honey bees but, usually, with an electroshock treatment that's mild enough not to injure the bees yet strong enough to annoy them into stinging. Their venom is collected from pre-positioned collection plates. While in the wild it's unusual for the full contents of the venom sac to be used in one sting, it is not unusual for therapy bees to do so, producing between 0.15 and 0.3 grams of venom per sting [source: Krell]. Depending on the individual and the condition being treated, the BVT schedule may vary; it could be as many as hundreds of stings per week. While that may sound like a lot of stings, on average, an adult can safely withstand the effects of 10 bee stings per every 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) of his or her body weight [source: USDA].


Only 22 percent of honey-bee venom is pharmacologically active — the remainder is just water. Scientists have identified amines, enzymes and peptides that are responsible for the pain of — or allergic reaction to — a sting. The largest percentage, 52 percent, of active components in bee venom is a peptide called melittin [source: Downey]. Melittin is toxic to humans and destructive because it pokes holes in cell walls. Melittin poisoning is associated with a powerful, burning pain because it tricks the body into thinking it's on fire. More than one toxin is released during a honey-bee sting, though. Apamin, for instance, is a neurotoxin that blocks the body's ability to regulate neural activity, including impacting how fast neurons fire and the plasticity of our synaptic connections.

Additionally, two enzymes, hyaluronidase and phospholipase A2 (bvPLA2), together make up between 11 and 15 percent of bee venom. Hyaluronidase dilates blood vessels, triggering inflammation throughout the body. Phospholipase A2 breaks down cell walls, decreases blood pressure and suppresses the blood's ability to clot. It also triggers the body's production of prostaglandins, used to regulate the immune system's inflammatory response. Together these enzymes activate the body's immune cells and produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE); this plays a part in the body's allergic response to the sting [source: Bowling].

Peptide 401, a mast-cell degranulating peptide (MCDP) also found in bee venom, plays a role in the body's allergic response. Mast cells are found in the connective tissues throughout the body, mostly near the surface, and are vital in the body's defense against pathogens. They signal the immune system to intruder alerts and play a role in triggering the release of histamine. At high levels, MCDP is known to be epileptogenic, a neurotoxin that causes epileptic seizures.

The swelling and itching associated with bee stings is caused by the small percentages, just 1 to 2 percent, of dopamine and noradrenaline, which increase the body's pulse rate and the levels of histamine produced [source: Ali].


Emerging Scientific Evidence, and Risks, of Toxic Therapies

A bee sting therapist’s clinic in Jakarta, Indonesia.
A bee sting therapist’s clinic in Jakarta, Indonesia. © BEAWIHARTA/Reuters/Corbis

Venom, surprisingly, isn't all bad news. Although venom isn't a popular therapy in Western medicine, growing scientific evidence is beginning to affirm what ancient healers have practiced for a long time: Honey-bee venom may be an effective and lasting treatment against a handful of neurological and immunological ailments, including multiple sclerosis (MS), and the venom shows promise as a therapy for several more conditions.

Emerging scientific data of the beneficial role of apitherapy suggests the venom may help decrease inflammation and improve circulation, and it may help encourage a healthy immune system. Bee venom has been studied as therapy for a list of diseases, and while most are considered too small or otherwise inconclusive, some results do stand out.


It turns out that melittin, for example, is a pretty powerful anti-inflammatory compound that triggers the body to produce cortisol and is estimated to be 100 times more potent than cortisone [source: Downey]. It may be a potential treatment against bacterial and fungal infections because of its antimicrobial properties; in the right dose, the toxin weakens a cell until it pops, and it's that ability to destroy one cell without damaging another that prompted scientists to explore its efficacy against diseases including certain types of arthritis and cancers, in addition to HIV and the aforementioned multiple sclerosis (MS).

And roughly 2 to 5 percent of the active compounds in bee venom is a peptide, adolapin, which has antipyretic analgesic properties — and that means, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, adolapin is an effective anti-inflammatory and pain-blocking agent. Protease inhibitors make up just 2 percent of bee venom: A protease is an enzyme that can separate a protein into peptides, and protease inhibitors block the enzyme's ability to do that. Protease inhibitors are also associated with anti-inflammatory properties and hemostasis (which is the body's way of stopping you from bleeding when you're injured) [source: Ali].

Scientists in both Greece and South Korea independently published findings that honey-bee venom interferes with the production of a compound called interleukin-1, one of 11 cytokines associated with arthritic pain and inflammation — and that means, at least for the majority of study participants, BVT is effective in reducing symptoms of arthritis.

In a small study, bee venom, in the form of bee venom acupuncture, was successful as a Parkinson's disease treatment; researchers theorize the apitoxin may work in a similar way as the botulism toxin, causing temporary muscle paralysis. Additionally, after a 30-day course of BVT, men with symptoms of enlarged prostate, specifically benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), reported significant symptom relief [source: Lukits]. And when we look at anecdotal evidence, data suggests bee venom may also be effective treatment against post-herpetic neuralgia, a side effect of the Shingles infection.

Apitherapy is considered experimental medicine and is not sanctioned or regulated by the FDA for any purpose other than for allergen immunotherapy, also called desensitization therapy. But that hasn't stopped the experimental therapy from gaining followers. Acupuncturists and naturopaths, plus a limited number of Western-medicine-practicing physicians and nurses, recommend or practice the therapy. Some beekeepers who supply BVT patients with bees also become expert in BVT treatment and methods.

Reactions to bee venom therapy are usually local reactions such as itching, pain, redness and swelling; however, bee venom may cause whole-body allergic reactions. A small percentage of people — an estimated 1 to 2 people out of 1,000 — suffer severe allergic reactions, which begin immediately or within 30 minutes of exposure, while anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, occurs almost immediately [source: ARS]. Those undergoing BVT should be prepared for an allergic reaction not only after the first BVT session, but as a risk after each and every of them.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Bee Sting Therapy Works

Although honey and other bee products have a long history in human health care, bees aren't the only bugs used as drugs. Ant venom, too, is effective in reducing the swollen joints and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. For instance, cantharidin, from blister beetles, is a power wart treatment. Maggots' ability to successfully heal treatment-resistant wounds, including removing dead or damaged tissue (debridement) and disinfecting the area, is impressive, and they've been useful in the healing process for both chronic and post-surgical wounds, including in modern medicine.

Related Articles

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