Today is World Apitherapy Day. And it’s my birthday. Coincidence? Maybe.
Apitherapy, which means using bee stuff for health, can include eating pollen, propolis, wax, royal jelly, bee larvae, and honey – 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 – as you can read here. (And here, here, and here.) However, a recent death due to a bee sting administered as apitherapy is newsworthy.
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.) without adverse effects. But 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 sting therapy may work wonders on some auto-immune syndromes, stings might send a patient into systemic shock. That’s what reportedly happened to a woman in Spain.
She had been treated without incident on several earlier occasions, but this time, the woman went into shock and never regained consciousness. She 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, We 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. We try to be sure that they understand the risks involved. 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 applying stings on anyone. Intentionally inflicting bee venom so that a client may gain health benefits might be considered “practising medicine without a license.” And you could kill someone.
This leads me to look again at the role of bee-sting therapy as a treatment for Covid-19. Back in June 2020, I wrote about scientists in Wuhan, China, who claimed that beekeepers in the area didn’t get the virus. They claimed that bees had protected the beekeepers:
“In Hubei province, the epicentre of COVID-19 in China, the local beekeepers association conducted a survey of beekeepers. A total of 5115 beekeepers were surveyed from February 23 to March 8, including 723 in Wuhan, the outbreak epicentre of Hubei. None of these beekeepers developed symptoms associated with COVID-19, and their health was totally normal.”
I was skeptical. In fact, I wrote: “I have limited confidence in their study because it has grandiose statements and is a one-off. But it was allowed on the US government’s National Institute of Health website, so maybe it carries some truth. I’ll leave it to you to decide, but I still don’t fully trust it. The paper makes bold claims about the extreme effectiveness of bee stings as protection against Covid-19. In short, it seems too good to be true.”
It looks like I’m not the only one who had doubts about the report from China. Maybe honey bee stings aren’t really working against the Covid virus. A peer-reviewed paper, Beekeepers who tolerate bee stings are not protected against SARS-CoV-2 infections, published six months after the Chinese study, disagreed with the earlier report. In the new study, German researchers contacted the German-beekeeping community requesting information on beekeepers who had been in contact with Covid. Based on Germany’s population (82 million), and the percent who are beekeepers (0.2%), along with the number of people exposed to the corona virus during the study period, the researchers calculate that about 540 beekeepers in Germany were in direct contact with the virus. They managed to find 234 of them. Of those 234, 2 died and 45 became quite sick from the virus. Remember, the Chinese scientists claimed that out of 5115 Wuhan-area beekeepers, none died nor became ill. The German researchers reject the Chinese findings:
“The study shows that beekeepers are not immune to infections caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Especially, our data do not support the hypothesis that beekeepers are not affected by SARS-CoV-2 due to their exposure to bee stings and the associated immunity. The severity of the disease was not influenced by various variables like how long they had been a beekeeper, total number of bee stings received, number of bee stings received in the year 2020 and potentially allergic reactions to bee stings.”
This doesn’t mean that bee sting therapy has no use in medicine. But it does remind us to be cautious and question what we hear or read. Maybe the German study isn’t perfect, either. However, my blue-pill aversion swings into overdrive whenever anything sounds too good – or any study shows extremely confident numbers, as the Wuhan study did.
You may wonder why March 30 is World Apitherapy Day. Today is not only my birthday, 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. (An average of 60 stings/patient, administered over several months.) 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 is still cautious about 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 send regards to all those beekeepers with birthdays today).