In conjunction with other forms of “alternative” medicine, the use of bee products in promoting and conserving human health is trying to enter the mainstream. That seemed to be the message at the recent American Beekeeping Federation convention in Orlando. Dr. Brad Weeks, an MD and president of the American Apitherapy Society, held forth for several hours on the subject. The audience, a mixture of true believers and skeptics, intently probed Dr. Weeks for kernels of information to support their respective views on this controversial subject.
Dr. Weeks was careful to discriminate between the role of the Society and that of a physician. The Society cannot recommend treatment; only the individual doctor is able to do this. The Apitherapy Society’s function, Dr. Weeks said, is to gather information and place it in the hands of beekeepers, patients and physicians. Toward this end, the Society has established The Multi-Center Apitherapy Study (MCAS), which is gathering as much data as possible on benefits of apitherapy. Anyone undergoing therapy should fill out a standard form which can then be used along with others as a testimonial to effectiveness. Some 4,000 arthritis suffers and 1,700 with multiple sclerosis (MS) are currently participating in this database. With enough cases cataloged, Dr. Weeks said, it will be increasingly difficult for conventional medical authorities to ignore the virtues of apitherapy.
Increased exposure in the media, according to Dr. Weeks, has caused a great surge in Society membership. The Society defines apitherapy as “…medicinal use of honey bee products including bee venom, raw honey, pollen, royal jelly, wax and propolis.” Two of these were discussed in some detail by Dr. Weeks in his presentation: venom and raw honey.
Exciting research on bee venom, according to Dr. Weeks, indicates that it has pronounced anti-inflammatory, analgesic and immunostimulant properties, bolstering claims of effective treatment for a wide variety of diseases. He cautioned that how the venom actually works is a mystery, but that encouraging more research along this line is one of the American Apitherapy Society’s missions. Bee venom is a poison, he said, but so are most substances when used in excess. Thus, venom therapy becomes a matter of dosage based on individual needs.
Bee venom is a complex of various chemicals which Dr. Weeks divided into various metaphors derived from the game of football. He characterized as “front line” players: hyaluronidase, phospholipase A and histamine. These tend to soften up tissues, promoting circulation, allowing the other constituents access to localized sites. Melittin, apamin, MCD-peptide and adolapin were like “running backs,” and the “utility players” were dopamine and norepinephrine.
Melittin, which is 50% of the dry weight of whole venom, is a powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent, Dr. Weeks said. Apamin produces anti-inflammation without compromising the immune system. It may be the main substance responsible for reducing symptoms of MS. MCD-peptide is important, according to Dr. Weeks, because there are many receptor sites for it in the hippocampus of the human brain. It, along with adolapin, may contribute to clearing up “fuzzy thinking” as reported by some patients. Dopamine and norepinephrine are neurotransmitters which can enhance communication throughout the nervous system. Their use may be important in treating Parkinson’s disease.
The systemic effects of bee venom also include stimulating the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, according to Dr. Weeks, a related compound to hydroxy-cortisol, or cortisone. The latter is often prescribed as an anti-inflammatory. Taking a page from the Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR), he then proceeded to show the range of currently medically accepted products based on cortisol and the maladies for which they are prescribed. The list was similar to the one containing diseases for which bee venom has been recommended. And, although commercially available cortisone has shown deleterious side effects in some cases, Dr. Weeks said, cortisol, produced by the body, does not.
There are a number of principles of apitherapy, according to Dr Weeks. First and foremost is informed consent by the patient. The patient-physician relationship has broken down, Dr. Weeks said. Instead of being the all-powerful god-like figure of today, the original physician was a teacher. Communication between the afflicted and doctors must be a two-way street or little healing will result.
Working with symptoms instead of against them is also important Dr. Weeks said. Itching, for example, is a symptom of healing. Some patients, when confronted with itching, may refuse more treatment, even though it is a sign that things are improving. Another is trying to lower temperature. The heat is in fact destroying viruses and other organisms that are responsible for unhealthy conditions. As Hippocrates said, quoted by Dr. Weeks, “Give me the power to create a fever and I will cure all illness.”
Another principle is that a “crisis” is often necessary before any healing can take place. The crisis is like a call to arms, Dr. Weeks said. It gets the body’s immune system’s attention that something is really wrong. He quoted a physician named Hamerman, “You can never cure a chronic illness, the best you can hope for is to make it acute, and then you can cure it.”
Finally, Dr. Weeks said, the placebo effect exists. This is the observed fact that some patients get better no matter what the treatment. Something inherent in the doctor-patient relationship often stimulates healing in and of itself. This effect, along with other therapies, should not be ignored and can be used to the patient’s benefit. The bottom line, Dr. Weeks concluded, is the patient’s welfare and all means should be brought to bear to improve it.
With reference to liability, Dr. Weeks said that beekeepers are usually not at risk when providing bees for treatment. This is especially true if no money changes hands. He concluded that the risk was worth taking if venom therapy helps even one patient.
Most recently, there has been great interest in using bee venom therapy to treat multiple sclerosis (MS). Dr. Weeks passed out information from North America’s best known apitherapist, Charles Mraz, specifically concerning treatment of MS. What follows is a condensation of that information:
1. MS involves the neurological system; it is important to treat all nerve meridians in rotation. The spine is a main nerve meridian to be treated.
2. Before beginning, always make a test sting near the area most affected. Remove the sting after a minute or two and wait fifteen minutes to see if hypersensitivity develops. [Editor’s comment: trouble breathing, vomiting, hives are often considered signs of hypersensitivity]. After this test, start treatment with five or more stings along a nerve meridian.
3. It is best to apply stings to trigger points or “hot spots.” These are very sensitive spots along nerve meridians and can be found by pressing firmly with the thumb. Mark the spots with a pen. If trigger points cannot be found, applying stings along meridians will usually be effective.
4. Normally, five to fifteen stings are applied on appropriate nerve meridians three times per week. First treatments may not produce much swelling, but further ones will. Extensive swelling, heat and itching are to be encouraged. This “reactive stage” indicates the body’s healing powers are being mobilized. The main precaution is not to try to administer more bee stings than the body can handle. [Editor’s comment: this can be extremely variable, ranging from 100 to several thousand].
5. Continue treatment for at least six months to ensure giving the therapy a chance to work. All cases respond differently. The only way to find out if this kind of therapy works is to try it. When symptoms are no longer present, treatment can be discontinued. Treatment can be resumed at any time. There is much to gain and little to lose trying bee venom therapy for MS, lupus erythematosus and scleroderma, as well as the vast family of rheumatic diseases.
6. Bees for treatment should be placed in a small jar with a tablespoon of honey, preferably crystallized or in comb so that they don’t become mired. Bees can be collected even in winter by rubbing the jar’s opening over a 3/4″ hole in a hive. The disturbed bees come running out into the jar. For treatment, chilled bees can be picked by the thorax with long six-inch tweezers, crushed, and the abdomen applied to the site. The sting site can be treated with ice prior to stinging and even local anesthetic might be used.
Other therapies based on bee products are also part of the Society’s work, Dr. Weeks said. Using “raw” honey is of significance in everything from post nasal drip and pink eye to diaper rash. Perhaps its most universal use, however, is in burn treatment. Dr. Weeks mentioned an effective treatment used in the Far East, based somewhat on honey, called “moist exposed burn ointment” . This, he said, was far less painful and expensive than others currently in use in the United States. Because the therapy depends to some extent on hydrogen peroxide produced by glucose oxidase, honey must not be heated, or the reaction will be compromised.
Although therapies based on bee venom and raw honey appear to have a good deal of merit, the Society skates onto thin ice when describing the benefits of other hive products in its literature. It allies itself with those who have described bee collected pollen as the world’s “only perfectly complete food,” with “all” the essential vitamins and minerals needed by humankind. As Dr. Justin Schmidt said on page 931 in the newest edition of The Hive and the Honey Bee (1992 edition): “Simple evidence that pollen is not a perfect (human) food comes from the fact that pollen contains no, or essentially insignificant, levels of the lipid-soluble vitamins D, K, and E.”
The Society also says that royal jelly “…is the world’s best example of ‘You are what you eat.’ This is the substance fed to the queen bee larva which allows her to develop into a genetically complete (fertile) insect.” Both workers and queens are genetically complete; the queen is able to lay fertilized eggs only because of sperm donated by drones. Again, Dr. Schmidt, on page 970 of the volume mentioned above, said: “It is not uncommon to hear that royal jelly has some gonadotropic or otherwise sex- enhancing action, an opinion that is emotionally pleasing since royal jelly is the sole food of one of the most productive organisms on earth–the queen honey bee. Any validity to these ideas was thoroughly dispelled over 50 years ago in excellent studies demonstrating that royal jelly had no gonadotropic effects on female rats and contains no nutritionally active levels of vitamin E, the fat-soluble vitamin first recognized for its crucial role in reproduction.”
Clearly the work of the American Apitherapy Society is needed not only to improve the health of humankind, but also that of the beekeeping industry. Ultimately, this boils down to delivering quality information to physicians, patients and beekeepers alike. Like most organizations, the Society will have to carefully choose from the many available sources. This means working closely with the likes of the National Honey Board and Cooperative Extension Service, something not often apparent from reading its literature. If a true demand for therapeutic products from the beehive existed, this would provide significant alternative income for many in the apicultural industry. It is incumbent on the American Apitherapy Society, however, to ensure that it has done the best possible job ensuring long-range survival of any product that might be developed as a result of its activities.