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Bee stings and bee venom

By Shaun Holt

Bee stings have been used medically for hundreds of years to help with pain and inflammation. In traditional bee venom therapy, bees are picked up and placed on the area to be treated and held until they sting.

Most people have experienced the pain from a bee sting, and the fact that people have voluntarily subjected themselves to this is a good indication that it probably works. Recent scientific studies are showing that bee venom therapy is indeed effective. These studies are investigating how it actually works and are researching some very interesting uses.

Traditional bee venom therapy uses live bees and this is still practiced in some parts of the world. This always results in the death of the bee. However, modern extraction methods mean that the venom, which is the active component of the sting, can be extracted without bee mortality, and the venom can then be administered as a cream to the skin or as an injection into a painful joint. Venom is collected by using specially designed equipment through stimulating the bees with small electric shocks and collecting the venom on glass sheets. Normally, a bee will die when it stings, as it leaves the stinging part of its body in the target thereby tearing open it's abdomen which results in death. However, when bees attack the glass, the stinger cannot penetrate the surface and so the stinger does not detach from the body and the bees survive.

Honey bee venom is also called apitoxin and it is a colourless liquid. Around 0.1 mg of apitoxin is released when a bee stings and the active portion of the venom is a complex mixture of proteins, the main one called melittin. The venom causes local inflammation and acts as an anticoagulant i.e. it stops the blood from clotting, leading to swelling. In addition, studies in animals show that it causes steroids to be released by the body, and it is thought that this is the mechanism by which bee stings can help treat pain and arthritis.

As an anti-ageing product, it works within a few minutes and lasts for up to 12 hours and the method is thought to be that it causes a mild inflammation and swelling that irons out and fills in wrinkles. In other words, it encourages the body to react as if it has been lightly stung, increases the blood flow and supporting cell renewal in the area of application. When used on a regular basis, the mild chronic inflammation is thought to stimulate collagen production that can result in longer-term wrinkle reduction.

Researchers are also investigating whether it could be helpful for important medical conditions as well as appearance. It has long been said that beekeepers do not get sick! It is estimated that 1% of the population is allergic to bee stings and so a small test patch should be used first by people who do not know if they are allergic or not, and it must never be used by people who are known to have anaphylactic reactions to bee stings (sudden, serious allergic reactions).