To Bee or Not to Bee?
Publication: New Age Journal
Title: To Bee or Not to Bee?
Author: Elaine Appleton
To Bee or Not to Bee?
The treatment may be bizarre, but patients suffering from a range of
illnesses say bee sting therapy brings the relief that other approaches could
A hive swarming with 10,000 honeybees rests on the windowsill of Jean-
Francois and Stephanae Lariviere's Manhattan apartment. While most
people would balk at the idea of thousands of the buzzing, stinging insects
living so close, the Larivieres couldn't be happier.
Two years ago, the couple discovered that the deliberate infliction of
honeybee stings drastically reduced the severe pain of Stephanae's
osteoarthritis. Sixteen years ago, at the age of thirty, Stephanae's joints
began to swell and hurt. For the next decade and a half, she was in near
constant pain, waking each night in agony. Over-the-counter painkillers
didn't help. Stephanae grew suicidal. "Anybody with chronic pain can relate
to that," she says. "You say, 'Please make the pain stop.'"
In February 1993, Stephanae, assisted by Jean-Francois, began a course of
therapy that did just that. Budding beekeepers, they attended a meeting of a
local beekeepers' society. There, they heard the story of an actor who had
relieved the symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis -- a debilitating disease
characterized by stiffening of the spine -- by stinging himself with bees.
Intrigued, Jean-Francois, a multimedia trainer, decided to make a
documentary on bee venom therapy. The couple traveled to Middlebury,
Vermont, to visit Charles Mraz, an eighty-nine-year-old master beekeeper
who proponents affectionately call the "godfather" of bee venom therapy.
Mraz, who still travels worldwide, is a lay therapist who has been giving
the treatments, an old folk remedy, for almost sixty years.
Mraz gave the reluctant Stephanae one honeybee sting in the hollow behind
her ear, an area commonly targeted by acupuncturists. "Within twenty
minutes my left foot heated up and the pain was gone," she says. Mraz then
gave her three more stings. "I slept all night for the first time in years
without being wakened with pain." The couple, who had not yet started
their hive, left Vermont with a jar of bees. Back in Manhattan, they began
Stephanae on a regimen of four stings every other day, gradually increasing
the frequency to twenty-four stings every other day, a level that they
sustained for eight months. Today, she says, "the swelling has gone down
in my joints and legs and ankles." She's gone back to the gym, and she
walks to work. "I'm back to a normal life. Now my attention is not focused
on 'Oh, my God, I hurt.'"
As remarkable as Stephanae's case appears, it is by no means unusual.
According to the American Apitherapy Society (AAS) -- a nonprofit group
dedicated to research and education on the therapeutic use of bee products,
including venom -- more than 10,000 people nationwide now practice bee
venom therapy in attempts to relieve symptoms of arthritis, lupus, cancer,
multiple sclerosis, and a host of other ills. Proponents report a multitude of
benefits ranging from a dramatic decrease in the pain and inflammation of
arthritis to an improvement in vision, strength, energy, and bladder control
in multiple sclerosis patients. Most treatment is done the low-tech way:
placing a bee on the skin until it stings (alas, killing the bees). But some
practitioners use injectable venom, extracted from bees with an electrical
shock process that spares their lives but "does make them terribly mad,"
according to Christopher Kim, M.D. , of the Monmouth Pain Institute, in
Red Bank, New Jersey. Not just any sting will do: Only honeybees are used
-- the kind used to produce honey for commercial purposes.
With 1,600 members, the AAS is the heart of the community of lay
therapists, patients, beekeepers, and about 300 US physicians who practice
or research the therapy. The small numbers reflect the fact that bee venom
therapy is widely considered an alternative, even downright weird, practice.
And one not without some risks. Kim, who has given more than three
million shots of venom to 2,000 patients in the last ten years, notes that a
small number of people -- less than 2 percent of the population -- are
allergic to honeybee stings. Still, because an allergic reaction can induce
anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal, experts stress that no one should
consider bee venom therapy without first receiving an allergy test and
having epinephrine, an allergy antidote, on hand. (Two brands are
available, both by prescription: Epipen, which ranges from $17 to $24, and
Ana-Kit, which costs about $25.)
Like Stephanae, many patients turn to bee stings only when nothing else
has worked or when recommended drug treatments are unappealing. Doug
Kelly, a forty-four-year-old lawyer living in Clinton, Washington, turned to
bee stings to treat the excruciating pain of his psoriatic arthritis, which
made walking feel like "stepping on a nail." Kelly had tried acupuncture
and Chinese herbal medicine in addition to ibuprofen and Feldene,
nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs often used to treat arthritis. The
alternative treatments didn't work, and Kelly was leery of the long-term
side effects, like kidney damage, that can arise from consistent use of anti
inflammatory drugs. After a year of intense pain, his rheumatologist
recommended that he try chemotherapy. Bee stings, no matter how
frightening, sounded more attractive.
Working with Seattle physician Brad Weeks, M.D. , Kelly fortified his
immune system with vitamins, minerals, and herbs for a month before his
wife, Dana, administered the first stings, primarily on the painful joints in
his feet. "The pain dissipated where I was stung within an hour or two,"
says Kelly. "I was delighted that I could be out of pain and I could go on
doing what I needed to do with my life." After two months of fifteen stings
three times weekly, Kelly estimates, "It's decreased the pain in my feet
probably 90 percent." However, he cautions that the unconventional
therapy isn't an instant cure. "It's not like hitting a light switch and returning
to where you were. You could have damaged your joints already. It doesn't
go away overnight." While the former runner hasn't returned to jogging, he
has gone mountain climbing and parasailing and, to the delight of his wife,
played soccer with his daughter. Says Dana Kelly: "It's a miracle."
Across the country, in Waldorf, Maryland, Pat Wagner tells anyone who
will listen that bee venom therapy is, indeed, a miracle. Wagner, who has
multiple sclerosis, was hospitalized numerous times since she was
diagnosed in 1970. By the summer of 1991, steroid medications had
stopped keeping the progressive neurological disease in check, and by
February 1992 she had been bedridden for eight months. "I couldn't wiggle
a toe," she says. Her legs were numb and her bones "felt like ice"; she was
deaf in her right ear; her vision was severely impaired; she couldn't roll
over by herself; her voice was weak; and she had no bladder or bowel
control. "The doctor said there was not any medical hope for me," she says.
One month later, Wagner had her first bee sting, on the outside of one knee.
Within twenty minutes, her leg warmed to a normal temperature, and
Wagner was excited. She took five more stings, and the next day "I was a
completely normal temperature all over. It was just incredible. I knew
something neurological was happening," she says. Like Kelly, she built to a
regimen of fifteen to twenty stings three times weekly. Two weeks later,
her hearing returned, and within three months she was walking, her vision
was better, she was regaining bladder and bowel control, the numbness was
gone, and the debilitating fatigue of ms was replaced with energy. Two
years later, she is even healthier, with complete control of her bodily
functions, good eyesight, and hearing "so good it's scary," she says. An
ardent advocate of bee sting therapy, Wagner spread the word of her
progress quickly, and for months dozens of ms patients, some from as far
away as Brazil, gathered at her home every week to learn stinging
techniques. She has just self-published her book, entitled How Well Are
You Willing to Bee? A Beginner's "Auto" Fix-It Guide.
In contrast to the evangelistic fervor of venom therapy proponents like
Wagner, mainstream doctors recommend against it, warning that, at best,
bee sting therapy has not been proven effective. "We don't know its utility,"
says Lee Simon, M.D. , a rheumatologist who is vice chairman for medical
affairs at the Massachusetts Chapter of the Arthritis Foundation and an
assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. No scientifically valid
double-blind studies of the type done to test new drugs have yet been
conducted on bee venom. "I would not use it until we know more about it,"
Simon states flatly.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society also cautions against the practice,
maintaining that ms patients are likely to experience placebo effects with
just about any therapy. Moreover, they say, ms naturally waxes and wanes:
"Miracles," like that experienced by Pat Wagner, are simply cases of
Proponents counter that the healing powers of bee venom have been
recognized since ancient times. Hippocrates referred to the merits of bee
venom more than 2,000 years ago, and, according to Kim, there have been
more than 1,000 papers or references made to bee venom therapy over the
past 110 years -- most of them in Europe and Asia. Today, bee venom is
widely used in the Far East. Advocates feel that the medical establishment
opposes the therapy because there is no money to be made by selling
venom: Bees, they note, cannot be patented. "Bee venom is a gift from
God," Kim says.
Just why bee venom seems to diminish symptoms (most of these illnesses
are incurable) is not entirely understood. In general, say apitherapists, bee
venom appears to stimulate the immune and endocrine systems. Bee stings
increase circulation and warm the area stung; such activity tends to remove
localized toxins. In addition, laboratory analysis of bee venom has found
that it contains components that trigger the body's anti inflammatory
defenses. Curiously enough, it also contains a potent anti inflammatory
agent of its own. In fact, according to Kim, animal studies show that bee
venom is 100 times more anti inflammatory than hydrocortisone, a steroidal
anti inflammatory drug typically used to treat arthritis. Along with its anti
inflammatory properties, bee venom is thought to have antibacterial and
antifungal properties and is also thought to affect the transmission of
messages along the nervous system.
Despite these promising scientific findings, the fact remains that the bulk of
people practicing bee venom therapy are lay therapists, trained by other
enthusiasts. No one has yet scientifically determined effective dosages,
which may range from one or two stings every other day to twenty or more
per day. Approaches to administering the stings also vary: Some apply the
bee to the sore area; others, to trigger points, an Eastern concept familiar to
acupuncture patients. For instance, Doug Kelly receives stings on his
psoriatic lesions (which are shrinking); on the inflamed joints in his feet;
and on certain tender trigger points in his shoulders and back. In contrast,
Conrad Casarjian, fifty, an Everett, Massachusetts, jeweler who treats his
rheumatoid arthritis with bee stings, stings himself only on sore, inflamed
joints. Some patients, like Kelly, follow vegetarian diets and abstain from
alcohol and dairy products; others seem not to worry about what they eat.
In most cases, patients find advocates of bee venom therapy by asking local
beekeepers or by joining the AAS, which helps members connect to one
another. The Larivieres are a case in point: They invite interested people to
their home, insisting that the "patient" arrive with a caregiver, who can lend
moral support and learn how to give the stings. "Then I'll demonstrate on
my wife or on myself how it works," explains Jean-Francois. The bees are
grabbed from a honey-laden jar with a long pair of tweezers, then placed on
the skin. "It's pretty scary at first," he says. "People have the misconception
that bees are like pit bulls, that they'll come lunging at you. But most of
them stay in the jar."
Following the demonstration, the Larivieres have the caregiver apply a test
sting on the "patient," looking for signs of allergic reaction -- local swelling
larger than a quarter, faintness, itching, or rashes. If after an hour the
recipient has no allergic reaction, the couple sends the people on their way.
Like the majority of bee sting advocates, they offer their service for free. (In
contrast, physicians who practice injectable venom treatments do charge.
Kim, for example, charges $50 to $100 per session, during which he gives
an average of twenty to thirty injections.)
For many, the biggest drawback is not that the therapy has not yet been
embraced by mainstream medicine, but that one must bravely face those
stings, day after day. Says Doug Kelly, who continues to take the fifteen
stings three times weekly: "It is not a remedy for the faint of heart."
American Apitherapy Society, Inc., PO Box 54, Hartland Four Corners VT
05049; (800) 823-3460. Pat Wagner's book is available through Wagner at
5431 Lucy Dr., Waldorf MD 20601-3217; (301) 843-8350.
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