This month’s column was supposed to celebrate the first-ever Charles Mraz conference on apitherapy to be held in Florida. Unfortunately, that event was cancelled due to a dearth of applicants. Hopefully this will not endanger future efforts in this arena. Apitherapy or “bee therapy” (from the Genus Apis of the honey bee known by the latin name Apis mellifera) is the medicinal use of products made by honey bees. These include bee venom, honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis, and beeswax. Some of the conditions treated successfully with apitherapy are multiple sclerosis, arthritis, wounds, pain, gout, shingles, burns, tendonitis, and infections.
Apitherapy is mostly used in third-world developing countries that do not have access to so-called “modern medicine,” which is relatively expensive. It also provides what some call a “green” or natural alternative to conventional medical practice. Cuba is a leader in developing treatments of this kind and hosted the 5th Continental Congress on Natural Products and Medicine in 2005. A report of that event stated that antioxidant action and the treatment of diseases produced by some virus and parasites were among the main issues tackled by experts from more than 10 countries. Other topics included economic benefits, security and low toxicity of natural-origin compounds. Stigmatized by some and supported by others, natural medicine is a truly controversial issue among the international scientific community.
Two areas of apitherapy appear have a substantial body of scientific study behind them. The first is burn and wound treatment employing honey, the original “first aid kit in a jar.” More and more hospitals and trauma centers are using honey in a variety of ways against some of the toughest of organisms such as Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). In addition, microorganisms can create biofilms, which honey effectively penetrates. I related research about these areas in a previous column.
The second area is bee venom therapy. The web site of The American Apitherapy Society (AAS) says, “The modern study of apitherapy, specifically bee venom, was initiated through the efforts of Austrian physician Philip Terc in his published results ‘Report about a Peculiar Connection between the Bee Stings and Rheumatism’ in 1888. Bodog Beck (Budapest, Hugary 1871 – NYC, 1942) followed Terc, and brought Apitherapy to the United States. More recent popularity has been credited to Charles Mraz (1905 – 1999), a beekeeper from Vermont, who knew Beck. Some of the board members of the American Apitherapy Society, as well as some general AAS members, have been trained by and/or treated and inspired by Mraz. The Society’s annual educational and training event, CMACC, is named for him, the Charles Mraz Apitherapy Course and Conference.”
Mr. Mraz has written an introduction to this kind of therapy on the AAS web site: “The number of treatments varied, depending on the severity of the disease. Acute cases required but a few times and a short treatment. More chronic cases required many more treatments over a longer time. The usual course of treatment was to apply the bees every other day for three times a week over the affected areas, in rotation.
“As with Dr. Terc, Dr. Beck laid great emphasis on the ‘reactive stage’ of the treatment. Usually after a week or two of treatments, the treated areas would swell with inflammation, heat, and itching-perhaps as much as six inches in diameter. During this reactive stage the patient often felt worse and would become greatly discouraged about the treatment. In this book Dr. Beck describes this reactive stage very well, with a graph. As with everyone who has experience with bee venom therapy, we realized that the reactive stage is the most important part of the treatment. It is this reaction of the body to the bee venom that produces the greatest therapeutic effect. We now know that bee venom stimulates the immune and protective systems of the body. Dr. Terc stressed this same act, long before the recent interest in ‘immunotherapy’ as a treatment for degenerative diseases.”
There are several potential scientific reasons behind the success of bee venom therapy. One is that venom causes the adrenal cortex to secrete a hormone called cortisone. This is the same material that physicians often inject into athletes experiencing joint and pain problems. Too many cortisone injections can result in problems, perhaps because it not the patient’s specific individual hormone. Venom, however, causes the patient to secrete their own special version of this powerful substance.
Another idea is that when suffering chronic conditions, the body often does not recognize it has a “problem.” It simply adapts over time, rather like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water on a stove. The frog does not try to escape a small rise in water temperature, but its body simply adjusts to the situation until the animal finally succumbs to extreme temperature. The human body, however, cannot ignore bee stings. They are a powerful message that there is something “wrong.” In marshaling its resources to heal a localized insult like a sting, therefore, the body may begin to “fix” other problems.
Although perhaps not the first thing physicians might use to try to help patients suffering from many chronic and some acute conditions, bee venom should not be ignored as a potential treatment of last resort. All too often it is, however, leaving many with no access to this potentially life-changing therapy.