What Is Bee Sting Therapy?

A type of apitherapy (from the Latin api, meaning bee), bee sting therapy involves administering bee venom through live bee stings or injections at specific points on the body. Healers have used bee sting therapy for more than 5,000 years as a treatment for a range of health conditions including headaches, joint pain, and skin rashes.

Close-up of honey bee on a white background
Don Farrall / Getty Images

Bee venom, also called apitoxin, contains many biologically active compounds, amino acids, and enzymes that have anti-inflammatory properties, alleviate pain, and promote healing. There are also immune-modulating effects on the body from the bee sting itself. This response is theorized to be the reason for its therapeutic effects in certain conditions caused by an imbalanced immune system response (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, eczema).  

Today, bee venom is being investigated to treat the following conditions: 

Health Benefits

Bee sting therapy has shown promise, though most of the research is limited to cell cultures and animal studies. However, a few small clinical trials have found bee sting therapy to be a safe and effective treatment for a few conditions.

Here's a look at some key findings from recent studies.

Psoriasis

Apitherapy may help in the treatment of inflammatory skin conditions. For example, a 2015 clinical trial of patients with plaque psoriasis found apitherapy can help heal skin lesions and reduce inflammation.

In the randomized, controlled study, 25 patients were given weekly injections of bee venom directly into skin lesions, while another 25 patients were given a placebo. After 12 weeks, patients who received apitherapy showed a significant reduction in both psoriasis plaques and levels of inflammatory blood markers compared to the placebo group. Larger trials are needed to confirm these results.

Pain

Apipuncture—a form of acupuncture that delivers diluted bee venom to acupuncture points—is being explored as a drug-free treatment for pain. A small clinical trial of patients with central post-stroke pain treated 16 subjects with either apipuncture or acupuncture twice a week for three weeks.

At the end of the trial, both groups reported reduced pain levels, but those treated with bee venom showed even greater improvements. More research is needed to explore apipuncture for the treatment of other pain conditions.

Parkinson’s Disease

Bee venom therapy is being explored as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found bee venom combined with acupuncture shows promise as an adjunctive treatment for the neurological disease. 

In the small clinical trial, patients who were on a stable dose of antiparkinsonian medication were also treated with apipuncture twice weekly for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, subjects showed improvements in gait speed, quality-of-life scores, motor control, and activities of daily living compared with the start of treatment. 

Though promising, the study authors note further research is needed.

Frozen Shoulder

Bee venom acupuncture combined with physiotherapy has been studied in the treatment of frozen shoulder.

Research published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014 tested the effects of apipuncture combined with physical therapy in 60 patients. Subjects were divided into three groups and given acupuncture with saline or two different doses of bee venom for two months, then followed up with at 12 months.

Those treated with bee venom reported reduced levels of pain after treatment, and those improvements persisted a year later.

Arthritis 

Bee sting therapy may aid in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, according to research published BMJ Open in 2014. The literature review found one small clinical trial that compared bee venom acupuncture treatments to placebos. The bee treatments were more effective at reducing pain, morning stiffness, tender joint counts, and swollen joint counts, and also improved the quality of life of patients with arthritis.

However, the study authors note that the number of trials, their quality, and the total sample size was too low to draw firm conclusions regarding the effectiveness of apipuncture, and that more research is needed.

Bee sting therapy was brought to modern American medicine in the mid-20th century by Vermont beekeeper Charles Mraz, who studied the clinical benefits of bee venom at Sloan-Kettering Institute and the Walter Reed Army Institute. Continuing research shows bee sting venom has promise as a treatment for autoimmune diseases, central nervous system disorders, and HIV. 

Side Effects, Risks, and Contraindications

Some patients may experience severe allergic reactions to bee stings. In some cases, bee sting therapy can trigger anaphylactic shock, which is life-threatening. Given these safety concerns, it's crucial for anyone with a bee-sting allergy to avoid this treatment.

Bee sting therapy is also known to cause pain, as well as such side effects as anxiety, dizziness, insomnia, changes in blood pressure, and heart palpitations.

In addition, there's some concern that bee sting therapy may interfere with immune function.

Because of the effect bee venom has on the immune system, caution should be taken with certain conditions, such as auto-immune disorders. In a single case study published in the Korean Journal of Internal Medicine in 2009, for instance, researchers suggest that bee sting therapy may contribute to the development of lupus (an autoimmune disorder). A 2011 report from the World Journal of Hepatology also warns that bee sting therapy may be toxic to the liver.

A Word From Verywell

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend bee sting therapy as a treatment for any condition. If you're considering using bee sting therapy in the treatment of a condition, make sure to consult your physician before seeking treatment. Self-treating and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

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