Most people associate bees with honey or pollen. But another bee product—bee venom—is used to treat certain illnesses.
We all know about the medicinal effects of bee honey. Tea with honey has long been a remedy of choice for sore throats. And some nutritionists consider bee pollen to be a near perfect source of protein.
Bee venom, however, is looked upon with some trepidation, which is not surprising, given that most people's only experience is via a painful bee sting. For thousands of years, though, the medicinal benefits of bee venom have been touted throughout the world. And while these medicinal effects have yet to be scientifically proven, the use of bee venom to treat various ailments (called apitherapy) is actively being studied.
Ancient Medicinal Uses
The medicinal use of bee venom dates back to ancient Egypt and is reported in the history of Europe and Asia. Hippocrates used bee venom to treat joint pain and arthritis. In more modern times, interest in the effects of bee venom was renewed in the 1888 with the publication of a clinical study conducted in Europe on its effect on rheumatism. Since then, interest in bee venom treatment has ebbed and flowed.
Current Medicinal Claims
With the increasing advent and acceptance of natural medicines, interest in the therapeutic value of bee venom has grown. However, there is conflicting evidence that bee venom is a useful therapy. For example, a small, randomized trial did not show any effectiveness for bee venom in the treatment of multiple sclerosis. But, a review of studies did find that the venom may show some promise as an arthritis treatment.
Despite these contradictory findings, there are numerous conditions that bee venom has been proposed to treat, such as:
- Chronic injuries, such as bursitis and tendonitis
- Hay fever
- Removal of scar tissue
Again, there is not a lot of evidence so far to show that bee venom is an effective therapy.
Components of Bee Venom
Scientists do not definitively understand how bee venom, which is a complex mixture of numerous compounds, acts on the human body. However, a number of components of bee venom that have been identified and studied include:
Rather than these individual components having an effect, it may be more likely that the body has an immune reaction to bee venom that proves beneficial in certain circumstances.
A Sting or a Shot: Administering Bee Venom
Before the invention of the syringe, bee venom was always administered directly from bees via the bee's stinger. Today, in some cases, it is still administered in the same way. The live bee is held (with tweezers or some other small instrument) by the person administering the bee venom, who then places the bee on the part of the patient's body to be treated, at which point the bee reflexively stings. Depending on the condition, the treatment schedule can vary. The venom can also be given via a syringe, rather than directly from the bee.
Allergic Reactions and Drug Interactions
The greatest risk of bee venom therapy is the risk of a severe allergic reaction, including anaphylactic shock, which can cause a person to stop breathing. If not treated immediately, anaphylactic shock can result in death. Though only a small percentage of the population is allergic to bee venom, it is very important that the person is tested for a bee sting allergy before the treatment. The health care professional who gives the bee therapy should also have a bee sting kit on site in case of an emergency.
Considering Bee Venom Therapy
If you are considering bee venom therapy, you must recognize that such therapy is a natural treatment for which, to date, there is no rigorous scientific evidence proving its medicinal effectiveness. Before trying this therapy, talk to your doctor, and remember that this therapy should be used in addition to, not instead of, other treatments prescribed by your doctor. And never have bee venom injections without knowing if you have a bee sting allergy.
American Apitherapy Society
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada
Apitherapy. American Apitherapy Society website. Available at: http://www.apitherapy.org/about-apitherapy/what-is-apitherapy. Accessed March 29, 2017.
Bee venom for MS. American Apitherapy Society website. Available at: http://www.apitherapy.org/656/bee-venom-therapy-for-ms. Accessed March 29, 2017.
Cuende, E, Fraguas, J, et al. Beekeeper arthropathy. J Rheumatol. 1999; 26:2684.
Introduction to apitherapy. Medicine World website. Available at: http://medicineworld.org/alternative/apitherapy.html. Accessed March 29, 2017.
Lee JD, Park HJ, et al. An overview of bee venom acupuncture in the treatment of arthritis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005;2:79-84.
Novella S. Bee venom therapy—grassroots medicine. Science-Based Medicine website. website. Available at: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/bee-venom-therapy-grassroots-medicine. Accessed March 29, 2017.
Rheumatoid arthritis therapies not shown to be effective. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T483087/Rheumatoid-arthritis-therapies-not-shown-to-be-effective. Updated May 28, 2013. Accessed March 16, 2015.
Wesselius T, Heersema DJ, et al. A randomized crossover study of bee sting therapy for multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2005;65(11):1764-1768.
Last reviewed March 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 3/16/2015