Bee therapy: From venom to drug

Salonaz Sami, Tuesday 6 Dec 2022

Apitherapy, also known as Bee venom therapy or (BVT), is a type of alternative medicine that relies on the use of honeybee venom for the treatment of many medical conditions.

Bee venom therapy

 

For thousands of years, people have used honeybee products as medicines, with their curative effects even being described in the Bible and the holy Quran.

The use of bee venom can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, Greece and China.

Hippocrates, the ancient Greek doctor, was known for using bee venom for its therapeutic qualities.

Recently, however, the use of honeybee venom for treating chronic or autoimmune diseases, has resurfaced.

The venom fights off inflammation and destruction of connective tissues and can return activity and mobility by supporting the body’s natural defences.

"Bee venom, also known as Apitoxin, is produced by a tiny gland, located in the abdominal cavity of the bee, often to be used as a defence tool when feeling threatened," explained Hag Mohammed Safaan, who has been working in the beekeeping business for over 35 years.

"It is a transparent and odourless liquid that dries soon after coming into contact with air," Safaan further explained.

Safaan believes that although bee-derived toxins are used, in classical medicine, to treat chronic inflammatory disorders, pain and neurological disorders among other conditions, it could be more beneficial to use the venom directly from the source.

"In traditional bee sting therapy, the bees go directly to the target point, on the human body, and stings," he said.

The live bee is gently held with tweezers by the person administrating the venom then places it on the part of the patient's body to be treated for the bee to sting.

"Sadly, after stinging the human body the bee cannot pull back the stinger and parts of its digestive tract along with some muscles and nerves," Safaan explained.

This major abdominal rupture kills the bee, he said.

Ice is then used to numb the skin and reduce the pain.

"The idea is that bee stings cause inflammation, which leads to an anti-inflammatory response by the patient's immune system," Safaan explained.

"The stings are applied over the body on a rotating basis so that the former treated area is given the time to heal from the previous stings," he said.

"As long as the patient receiving the stings is not hyper-allergic, the treatment is safe without any long-term adverse effects," he added.

The patients usually receive three bee stings a week, every other day.

If a person has not been stung by a bee before, it's crucial to try a test sting before applying full stings to be sure they are not hyper-allergic.

"In a test sting, the honey bee stinger is scratched out within a split second after it has become embedded in the skin," he explained

"We wait 20-30 minutes to see if the patient suffers from any allergic symptoms, like loss of blood pressure, fainting or breaking out in hives all over the body," he further explained. 

Interestingly, the best spots, on the human body, to apply BVT are the places that acupuncturists insert their needles.

"Stings applied to these points give greater results than when applied in other areas," he added.

As with any treatment, there are minor side effects that can be expected from BVT. The most common include swelling, redness, itching, soreness and feeling pain and heat in the stung area. However, the symptoms improve on their own within 48 hours as the chemicals from the venom are filtered out of the body.

"At the beginning, I questioned why would anyone ever choose willingly to be stung by a bee? It is very painful, it swells up and creates inflammation," wondered Omaima Tawfik, 46, a stay-at-home mom.

"I did my research and discovered that in larger amounts bee stings are very toxic and very irritating to your body, however, in very small amounts, I believe it is more of a hermetic effect where you give a small dosage of something and your body then responds by creating a stress which then adapts and strengthen your immune system," she explained.

Tawfik has battled multiple sclerosis for a while, a disease that causes the body's nerves to slowly deteriorate.

"I was not able to move without feelings of numbness and tingling and was always in terrible pain," she said. After using conventional medications for a while, she decided to turn to Safaan.

Every week, Safaan treats tens of patients and sacrifices hundreds of bees, but the results are amazing.

Tawfik began an intensive treatment course, receiving about 50 stings a week for months.

Although honey bees only sting once and die, the stinger continues to inject venom into its victim even after being separated from the bee.

"The pain of the stings could last for up to an hour," she said, describing the experience. After 6 months of BVT, Tawfik has seen a dramatic change. She insists the therapy has cured her multiple sclerosis and have given her a new chance at life without pain.

On one hand, her physician says her illness is simply in remission, but on the other hand, she believes that bee stings have helped her walk again. But, whether her recovery is in her head or her hands and feet, for the first time in more than a year Tawfik feels she can resume living.  A therapy most of us consider taboo is allowing her to have a future with renewed hope and without pain. 

In addition, honeybee venom reduces blood glucose level through increased insulin secretion and glucose take-up, thus, it is being considered as a potential remedy for diabetes. It also plays an important role in fighting skin wrinkles, and it is used in the cosmetics industry as an ant wrinkle agent.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently spoke with the New York Times about BVT, saying she had tried it. "People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring. It is actually pretty incredible if you research it. But man, it is painful."

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