My father’s the kind of guy who does things for himself. He tills his own garden, cuts his own wood and makes his own mulch. When he wanted new kitchen cabinets, he built them. A new house? He built that, too. Now, that’s not an outlandish project for a master carpenter. But when he started doctoring his arthritis with a pair of tweezers and a jar of bees, I worried.
I shouldn’t have. A man who reads widely, with a keen interest in natural healing, George Allison knows a lot about alternative medicine. I’m supposed to be the health writer in the family, but Dad knew the buzz on bee products way before I did. He knew about bee pollen before bee pollen was cool — he’s been taking it to keep allergies and sinus trouble at bay for 20 years now. So when his knees began hurting so much it was difficult to work, it seemed natural to treat them naturally. Once he read Charles Mraz’s book on relieving arthritis pain with beestings, he decided to give bee venom therapy a go.
Dad’s not alone. It’s difficult to estimate the number of people Mraz’s book, Health and the Honeybee (Queen City, 1995), has benefited, but thousands of readers have purchased a copy. A Vermont beekeeper who pioneered the use of bee venom in the United States, Mraz was convinced that it worked wonders on all forms of arthritis, as well as on the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. Mraz, who died in 1999 at age 94, ran a small clinic in Vermont and traveled the world advocating apitherapy (from the Latin name for the honeybee, Apis mellifera) for more than 40 years.
Physician and beekeeper Théodore Cherbuliez, M.D., met Mraz two decades ago at a conference. They soon established a friendship and met often to discuss apitherapy. For the past 20 years, Cherbuliez has consulted approximately 150 patients a year on the benefits of bee venom therapy, and he affirms its positive results.
All About Apitherapy
Cherbuliez is quick to point out that the honeybee’s sting isn’t the only aspect of apitherapy. Apitherapy is the use of all bee products, including those from the hive, such as honey, propolis, bee-collected pollen, beeswax, drone larvae extract and royal jelly.
Cherbuliez, who is president of the Apitherapy Commission of Apimondia, an international federation of beekeepers’ associations, says that bee products work best in combination and that each individual will respond according to his or her own bodily needs. The idea behind apitherapy is the basis of natural healing itself: that we can increase health by encouraging the body to combat illness.
What soon becomes apparent to anyone who begins to study honey — the most widely used bee product — is that it is much more than a nutritious alternative to sugar. Of the 800 medical treatments in the oldest known intact book of medicine, half call for honey, says Holley Bishop, author of the fascinating bee biography Robbing the Bees (Free Press, 2005). Honey and wine were considered two of the most healthful foods for the human body, according to Hippocrates. As far back as 400 B.C., Greek athletes ate honey to enhance their performances. And Cleopatra swore by its contribution to her beautiful skin.
These days, we know that honey is especially useful as a dressing for postsurgical cuts, burns and other infections. Honey dressings keep wounds free from infection, according to Peter Molan, M.D., of the Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Honey’s anti-inflammatory action reduces pain and improves circulation, encouraging healing. “Honey stimulates the regrowth of tissue,” Molan says, “making healing faster and reducing scarring.”
In addition, Molan cites various studies in which honey has been shown effective in treating gastroenteritis, peptic ulcers and ophthalmic conditions.
Bee Products: A Multitude of Uses
Propolis is a kind of bee-glue collected by bees from tree sap. Used to patch and mend the hive like a sort of antiseptic caulk, it’s composed of 55 percent resin, 30 percent beeswax, 10 percent ethereal and aromatic oils, and 5 percent bee pollen. Propolis contains benzoic acid, ketone, quercetin and caffeic acid, all of which have antifungal, antihistamine and antiviral effects in the human body.
A recent Japanese study determined that an extract of Brazilian propolis not only suppressed tumor growth but also activated the immune system by increasing T-cell counts. And just this year, oral biologist Hyun Koo, from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, has identified compounds in propolis that inhibit the formation of glucans. “Produced by Streptococcus mutans, the main microbial culprit in cavities and dental plaque, glucans is an organic adhesive substance that keeps the bacteria together and firmly attached to the tooth surface,” Koo says. “It is interesting to note that propolis acts specifically against the formation of this natural cement.”
Royal jelly is a white, creamy substance, produced by those indefatigable worker bees, who feed the milky stuff to all new bee babies for their first three days. Only a few larvae, chosen to become queen bees by the workers, continue to receive the jelly throughout their lives. As a result, they grow 50 percent larger than other female bees and live four or five years as opposed to the usual span of 40 days.
Composed of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fatty acids, amino acids and vitamins (especially B vitamins), royal jelly also has antifungal and anti-tumor properties. It has been shown to lower cholesterol and help boost the immune system, too.
When U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin from Iowa cured his allergies with bee pollen in 1992, he became such a proponent of alternative medicine that he nearly single-handedly established the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Taken internally, bee pollen helps fight hay fever, providing relief from airborne flower pollens that send more than 10 million sufferers to doctors each year.
Studies have shown that, like honey, bee pollen also contains vitamins, minerals and amino acids. A breakdown of its fat, protein, phosphorus and iron levels reveals a nutritive content comparable to that of dried beans, peas and lentils. In a 1997 study published in the Journal of Economic Botany, researchers determined that bee pollen contained even more calcium and magnesium than legumes. Cherbuliez calls it a “complete food,” one that easily can be taken daily (three heaping teaspoons at breakfast) to increase general health. Another benefit of bee pollen is heightened athletic performance. A course of pollen extract was shown to be effective in treating prostate enlargement and prostatitis, according to a review of complementary therapies published in Current Urology Reports in 2002.
Bee Venom: How Stings Work
Bee venom therapy (BVT) is by far the most controversial bee product and must be used with caution, but there is a large volume of anecdotal evidence to support it as a pain reliever. “BVT is effective for arthritis, giving fairly consistent results,” Cherbuliez says. “Arthritis used to be the No. 1 disease that we treated with bee venom, but I now treat more patients with multiple sclerosis. It cannot ‘cure’ these patients, of course, but it certainly can improve their quality of life.”
What kind of reaction do patients typically have to BVT? “People with arthritis frequently experience an instant and dramatic drop in pain,” Cherbuliez says. “It is difficult to generalize with so many different conditions of MS: One may have few symptoms or be totally chairbound without command of the body. But I have not yet seen an MS patient who has not benefited to some degree. I would never call it a ‘cure’ for MS, but all of my patients, even those whose limbs seemed ‘dead,’ could start a little movement after having treatment. The most prevalent symptom of MS is fatigue, which responds very well to bee venom.”
Bee venom stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, a hormone that is a powerful anti-inflammatory. In fact, cortisol is 100 times more anti-inflammatory than hydrocortisone, a steroidal drug typically used to treat arthritis. Along with its ability to stimulate cortisol, bee venom is thought to have antibacterial and antifungal properties and to improve the transmission of messages along the nervous system.
A Cautious Approach
Apamin, a neurotoxin present in bee venom, serves to anesthetize the sting site. The initial pain still may be daunting, but for many, it’s a small price to pay for relief of more painful symptoms. More worrying for some is the risk of an allergic reaction. All bee products may cause an allergic response. Christopher Kim, M.D., of the Monmouth Pain Institute in Red Bank, New Jersey, has treated more than 2,000 patients in the past 10 years with bee venom injections. He notes that a small number of people — less than 2 percent of the population — are allergic to honeybee stings. But because an allergic reaction can induce anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal, no one should consider BVT without having epinephrine, an allergy antidote, on hand.
Although the number of physicians practicing apitherapy still is greater in Europe, it is on the increase in the United States. But many practitioners are those like my dad, who have read Mraz’s book and learned to sting themselves. Others have contacted lay therapists like Pat Wagner, the “bee lady” of Waldorf, Maryland.
Diagnosed with MS in 1970, Pat was wheelchair bound, numb and incontinent by 1992, when she tried BVT for the first time. That first sting brought a sensation of warmth in her leg, and she has since recovered enough mobility to treat others with her own bees, appear on television and travel to speaking engagements worldwide to spread the news.
Some apply the bee to the sore area; others try traditional acupuncture points. Dad would find the most tender spot and sting there. “I couldn’t even put a shovel in the ground,” he says, of the days before he read Mraz’s book. “I couldn’t climb a ladder, couldn’t run for the phone … my knees were killing me.” He stung himself twice weekly for four months, using two to four bees per knee. It wasn’t dramatic. It took a few months to happen. But one day, he noticed something strange. It wasn’t a presence, but an absence. His knees! They just weren’t aching any more.
Nancy Allison is a freelance writer and illustrator living in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.