World Apitherapy Day: Bee Carefully!

One or more of these women are rumored to use bee venom on their face. Is it the Dutchess of Cornwall or the Dutchess of Cambridge? News at 11. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Today is World Apitherapy Day.  Apitherapy, which means using bee stuff for health, can include eating pollen, propolis, wax, royal jelly, bee larvae, and the like – or rubbing them on your face. But for many, apitherapy is bee sting therapy. Stings are sometimes promoted as a treatment for autoimmune disorders, like MS and rheumatism. Less frequently (but with more notice), bee venom is an ingredient in skin creams. It’s rumoured that the Duchess of Cambridge learned about it from the Duchess of Cornwall – as you can read here. (And here, here, and here.) That’s nice, but such gossip needn’t make the evening news. However, a recent death due to a bee sting administered as apitherapy is newsworthy.

Just winking?

I don’t want to deflate the  World Apitherapy Day balloon,  but if you’re not careful, bee sting therapy can be fatal therapy. Most long-time beekeepers have been stung thousands of times. (That’s not an exaggeration.) We may forget that, for some people,  a bee sting can be much worse than a bit of swelling, redness, and pain.  A single bee sting can kill.  Although bee stings therapy may work wonders on some auto-immune syndromes, stings might send a patient into systemic shock.  That’s what reportedly happened in Spain.

A 55-year-old woman was undergoing bee sting therapy to treat stress and muscle fatigue.  Her fatal sting was not her first bee sting – she had reportedly been getting sting therapy monthly for two years. Her fate is really unusual. If a severe reaction occurs, it is usually within the first few treatments. Sadly, although she had at least 20 previous sting sessions over many months without incident, the woman suddenly developed a “loss of consciousness immediately after a live bee sting,” according to the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology:

During an apitherapy session, she developed wheezing, dyspnea, and sudden loss of consciousness immediately after a live bee sting. An ambulance was called, although it took 30 minutes to arrive. The apitherapy clinic personnel administered methylprednisolone. No adrenaline was available. When the ambulance arrived, the patient’s systolic pressure had dropped to 42 mmHg and her heart rate had increased to 110 bpm.

The woman never regained consciousness and later died from organ failure at hospital. Such bee-therapy fatalities are rare. Only one other treatment is known to have ended a life. However, a meta-analysis of several hundred studies showed that a significant number of therapies have caused serious reactions. The figure given in the analysis (Risk Associated with Bee Venom Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis) indicated that 12% of people undergoing bee venom therapy from live stings (as opposed to physician-administered controlled injections of bee venom) experience serious reactions.

In two of the courses which I help teach – Making Money from Honey and Beginner’s Beekeeping, I always show a slide about bee sting therapy. For the beginners’ group, I mention it because many new beekeepers know the health benefits of a jab of bee venom, as seen on YouTube. For more advanced beekeepers, I mention bee sting therapy as something they may have considered as a source of income (and a way to help people). In both courses, I strongly advise against stinging anyone. Intentionally inflicting bee venom so that a client may gain health benefits might be considered “practicing medicine without a license.” And you could kill someone.

I don’t want this blog posting to be an anti-apitherapy diatribe. I think that there’s a lot of evidence that bee sting therapy can help some people some of the time. I’ve met people who claim that they are alive and active today because of bee stings.  But I still refuse to get involved in administering the treatments myself – I’m not a trained first responder. If something goes very badly wrong, the patient needs to be in the hands of someone with proper emergency experience.

Filip Terc apitherapy

Filip Terč, Father of Apitherapy 1844-1917

That’s my soap box speech for apitherapy caveats. You may wonder why March 30 is World Apitherapy Day. Today is not only my birthday (Happy Api-birthday, Ron!) but it’s also the birthdate of the most important early promoter of healthy bee stings –  Filip Terč, whom you see glaring at you adjacent to this sentence. Terč practiced medicine in Maribor, Slovenia, over a hundred years ago. As a young man, he suffered badly from rheumatoid pain until, at age 22, he was accidentally stung by an defensive mob of irritated honey bees. It changed his life. His pain was gone.

Terč began a serious study of the effects of bee venom therapy. He published the first clinical trials of the therapeutic effects of bee stings in the 1888 publication “Report on the Peculiar Connection between Bee Stings and Rheumatism”. He presented the results of treating 680 patients with the collective application of 39,000 stings. He claimed that 82% experienced a complete cure, 15% had partial recovery, and just 3% had no relief from their rheumatoid condition. Although his work was published over a hundred years ago and his results have not been disputed, the medical profession has reluctantly appreciated the link between rheumatism, auto-immune dysfunctions, and some of the elements of bee venom. With immune disorders ranging from multiple sclerosis to allergies on the rise, the use of apitherapy treatments are finally becoming more accepted and generally more widely available. So, with cautious caveats, celebrate World Apitherapy Day. (And all those beekeepers with birthdays today).

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
This entry was posted in Apitherapy, Culture, or lack thereof, Outreach, People and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to World Apitherapy Day: Bee Carefully!

  1. Karl Vogrinčič says:

    Lp

    Karl, maribor

    Like

  2. Alan Jones says:

    Happy Birthday Ron, I have heard about people who have kept bees for many years suddenly reacting badly to stings and asked a Doctor about this and was told that venom will build up in the body until one sting will be the straw that breaks the camels back. Does that make beekeeping a kind of Russian roulette ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks! It will be a nice to have a house full of visitors later today!

      Regarding the ‘build up’ of bee venom… I suppose that anything is possible, but you and I have known beekeepers who have been stung thousands of times and live long, happy lives until, at age 97, they keel over carrying a honey box to the truck in an apiary. I don’t think that there is any particular venom-load that we need to worry about (except for those incredibly rare circumstances in which a person receives hundreds of stings all at the same time). Severe bee sting reactions (anaphylactic shock) could happen to anyone, but in general it seems that beekeepers who are stung regularly are less susceptible. However, it’s good practice for all of us to keep epipens and antihistamines close at hand while working bees. If not for us, then for anyone who happens to wander by.

      Like

  3. Well then. Happy Birthday Ron!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post! Thanks and happy birthday, Ron!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have only had one fellow come to me requesting apitherapy (sting). He was from Mexico and said if he was still there he would know where to go for bees. When I first met him his wife drove him to meet me and get some honey at a gas station. He came across the parking lot limping badly. Said he could no longer work due to his inability to move. I would not sell him any bees but agreed to give him some. I got some to him and forgot about it. The next time I saw him he drove to my house, had a ladder in the back of his truck, and said he had returned to work. I gave him more bees. I even had the “pleasure” of watching him sting himself with bees. Happy as a he could be. He came over from time to time and got bees and usually some honey or wax too. I didn’t hear from him for awhile so I called him and he said he seemed to be in a remission of some sort. Interesting encounter. Next time I see him I’ll take a picture and post it and the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks for sharing this. It’s an interesting story. I’ve heard similar reports. There is still a lot we don’t know about how bee sting therapy works – and why it does not ‘always’ help people. But there are many positive narratives like yours so I think that there is often real healing in bee venom.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. api101 says:

    Appearently this woman had a very bad luck. I mean, 30 minutes for an ambulance and no adrenaline available is a really bad coincidence!
    Here in Italy you must be a doctor to practice apitherapy with bee venom (in a proper ambulatory) and you must have at least an Epipen available just in case.

    We have also apitherapy courses that are attended by both beekeepers and doctors at the same time with the purpose to make them work together: beekeepers to provide the products in the safest way possible, and doctors to use those products properly.

    Like

  7. Pingback: The Fragile Earth Egg | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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