Forms of apitherapy or bee venom therapy (BVT) have been in use for centuries in a number of cultures worldwide. As early as 800 BCE Charlemagne is said to have been treated with bee stings, and in 1888 Australian physician advocated the use of bee venom for rheumatism. Apitherapy is defined as the medicinal use of products derived from bees, including honey and royal jelly, as well as bee venom. While BVT has not been proven through clinical trials and testing, practitioners claim that bee stings contain an anti-inflammatory agent that relieves chronic pain and can be used to treat a number of diseases. BVT, which can involve either the application of live bees or the injection of bee venom, has been used to treat arthritis, multiple sclerosis, migraine headaches, psoriasis, and herpes. Raw honey and other ingested bee products are believed by some to contain B-complex vitamins, antifungal, and antibacterial properties.
The use of BVT has gained some attention as a potential homeopathic remedy for the treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms. Discovery Health reports that apitherapy can be used to lessen the pain, loss of coordination, and muscle weakness associated with MS. It is commonly held that compounds in bee venom, including melittin and adolapin, help to reduce inflammation and pain. Because of the lack of major studies to date regarding the effectiveness of BVT, only about 50 physicians in the United States use it as a treatment for MS and other diseases. Anecdotal evidence from patients with MS being treated with apitherapy is reassuring, however, and has prompted thousands of beekeepers, acupuncturists, and other alternative medicine providers to offer the treatment. Those who chose to use apitherapy methods based on the application of live bees may chose to raise their own colonies or rely on mail-order services.
Researchers at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.) conducted a preliminary study to evaluate the safety of bee venom extract as a treatment for patients with progressive forms of MS. Although no serious adverse reactions were observed during the year-long study, four of the nine participants experienced a worsening of neurological symptoms, requiring termination of the study. It is important to note that this worsening could not be ascribed to side effects of the study, and three participants self-reported an improvement in their symptoms, and two demonstrated objective improvement. Larger scale studies would be needed in order to conclusively prove the effectiveness of BVT for patients with multiple sclerosis.
Delivery of melittin, the main component in bee venom, is also being studied by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. By utilizing nanoparticles tipped with bee venom – so called “nanobees” – the researchers are seeking a cancer treatment with fewer side effects than conventional treatments. Nanobees work by delivering melittin, which destroys the cells around it by puncturing the cell membranes, directly to the cancer cells. However, unlike the melittin from bee stings, melittin attached to nanoparticles attacks only cells that have one particular protein on their surface, the protein that helps cancer cells to grow new blood vessels which is found only on tumor cells. After less than a week of treatment using nanobees, the growth of human breast cancer cells in mice had slowed by about 25 percent, and melanoma tumors in mice shrunk by 88 percent.
On Apitherapy from cancer.org – Additional information on Apitherapy – Discovery Health on BVT for MS – Georgetown University Research on BVT – Discovery on Nanobees – CNN on Nanobees – Additional information on Ferris Apiaries, a Maryland-based bee supplier – Additional information on Pat Wagner, “the bee lady”