Bee sting therapy has been getting a lot of buzz lately. I have received a lot of questions about applications of so-called apitherapy to conditions other than multiple sclerosis, which we discussed awhile back. Let’s review the more recent evidence…
While the practice of apitherapy dates back 5000+ years, only recently has this potential therapy been scientifically investigated. According to a recent review, bee venom has several peptides as well as enzymes that may help inflammatory diseases (ex: rheumatoid arthritis, Atopic dermatitis) as well as diseases of the central nervous system such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS. Some studies also suggest anti-viral (HIV, influenza – outside the body at least) and anti-cancer (ovarian and prostate) properties.
Bee venom has several potentially active components including melittin, apamin, MCD, adolapin, phospholipase A2 (PLA2), hyaluronidase, amino acids as well as volatile compounds.
Melittin: this is the main component of bee venom and is known to cause pores to form in cells. This is thought to give bee venom its anti-fungal, anti-tumor, anti-microbial and red blood cell disrupting properties as cells cannot survive with holes in their membranes. At low doses, it can target pain pathways and is thought to be a major reason why bee venom can fight pain and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis, ALS, and atopic dermatitis. It should be noted that melittin does not discriminate when attacking cells. This means it may be a challenge to use this component as an anti-cancer drug as it will also target healthy cells. Researchers are trying to package it in nanoparticles to help deliver it to only cancerous cells.
Apamin: this is a neurotoxin found in the venom that has been shown to cause seizures in rats. It can also disrupt atherosclerosis.
Mast Cell Degranulating (MCD) peptide: this is another neurotoxin that is known to lower blood pressure, in rats at least. It also has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Apolapin: this component has been shown to have anti-inflammatory as well as fever and pain reducing properties
Phospholipase A2 (PLA2): this is the most dangerous component of bee venom, although it has been shown to have some protective properties against asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and some Atopic skin conditions.
Hyalurinodase: As the name implies, this enzyme breaks down hyaluronic acid, which can build up in joints of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It also helps the venom get into tissues and increases blood flow to help the venom spread throughout the victim’s body.
Allergic reactions are a major risk factor that may prevent the use of bee sting therapy. These reactions are typically due to proteins that are found in the venom including PLA2, melittin, MCD and hyaluronidase. In 2015, researchers published data examining potential risks of bee sting therapy gathered from 145 studies. They found that compared to acupuncture that administered saline only, bee venom acupuncture caused a 261% greater risk of having a complication of some kind. Therefore, the risks of bee sting therapy should be carefully considered before seeking out this type of alternative treatment. This is also why researchers are exploring safer ways to administer individual components of bee venom or targeting administration of the venom or its components to specific tissues.
Sources for more detailed information on the therapeutic potential and risks of bee venom:
R Wehbe, J Frangieh, M Rima, D El Obeid, J-M Sabatier, Z Fajloun. Bee Venom: Overview of Main Compounds and Bioactivities for Therapeutic Interests. Molecules. 24:2997, 2019. doi:10.3390/molecules24162997
JH Park, BK Yim, J-H Lee, S Lee, T-H Kim. Risk associated with bee venom therapy: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 10(5): e0126971, 2015. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0126971