Mind & Body

Bee Venom Therapy Is a Real Thing — But Is It Safe?

Bee stings are unpleasant, to say the least. For some, they can be life-threatening — up to 7.5 percent of people will experience a severe allergic reaction to insect stings in their lifetime. Whether or not you're allergic, you'd never intentionally sting yourself with bees ... right? Well, that's not the case for proponents of bee venom therapy.

The Sting That Changed Everything

People have been stinging themselves with bees for therapeutic purposes since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks all left records of using bee venom to treat arthritis and joint pain, and even Hippocrates was a proponent of the treatment. But bee venom therapy remains controversial to this day, so definitely don't try this at home.

In modern times, anecdotal accounts show people using bee venom therapy to treat Lyme disease. Users either self-inject the bee venom by needle or, yes, actually sting themselves with live bees. But why?

Bee venom contains many different chemical compounds, but the most important one might be melittin. Honeybee venom is more than 50 percent melittin, which is the reason why bee stings are so painful. This compound activates a channel in the body's sensory neurons called TRPV1, which is usually there to sound the alarm when the body is exposed to high temperatures. That's right: Melittin tricks your body into thinking it's on fire. Jellyfish venom contains a similar chemical, which explains why their stings and bee stings both have a distinctive burning pain.

But that's not all. A low dose of melittin will also activate enzymes that trigger inflammation — that's the red, swollen aftermath of a bee sting — and a high enough dose will make your cells explode. The chemical pokes holes in the cell membrane and makes the cell swell until it pops.

Cell death might sound like a bad thing, but it's actually really good for killing bacteria and parasites. That seems to be why bee venom has shown promise in studies testing its effectiveness against the parasites that cause malaria and Chagas disease, and against Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. A 1997 study found that melittin paralyzes Borrelia and attacks the membrane, successfully killing the stubborn bacteria.

Too Good to Bee True?

Headlines like "How a bee sting saved my life" and "I Sting Myself With Bees 3 Times A Week" make bee venom therapy out to be a miracle cure. But like most so-called miracle cures, this one should be taken with a grain of salt.

Lyme researcher Eva Sapi and colleagues published a study about bee venom therapy in 2017 that has been celebrated as a win for supporters of the therapy. The study demonstrated that in a lab setting, both whole bee venom and melittin obliterates Borrelia burgdorferi while antibiotics only render the bacteria dormant. However, these results can't be generalized outside of a petri dish — and as the blog LymeScience points out, "Plenty of substances, such as bleach, can kill bacteria in a petri dish. Such results are not necessarily applicable to humans."

In the study, Sapi and colleagues emphasize that further research is necessary to determine the efficacy of bee venom therapy. The therapy hasn't yet been tested in animals, let alone humans. It's unclear if melittin alone is the active ingredient, as whole bee venom was more effective than that individual chemical.

And at the end of the day, it's still venom — not a safe, working medicine. A 2015 systematic review of bee venom therapy research found that adverse events like vomiting, heart palpitations, and paralysis were common side effects of the treatment.

Just ask Gerard Butler. The Scottish actor went into anaphylactic shock after experimenting with bee venom therapy in 2017. Seeking relief from muscle pain, he received 23 bee stings worth of injections and was immediately rushed to the hospital. He was lucky — in 2018, a 55-year-old Spanish woman was the first reported death from bee venom therapy. The moral of the story? Bee cautious with alternative remedies.

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Learn more about the dangers of unproven therapies in "Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine" by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, M.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Andrea Michelson August 16, 2019

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