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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip


Ariana Lamb

Medicine, like all other fields, is subject to trends. In recent years, trends towards "alternative healing" have emerged on top. They surface everywhere: gingko biloba tablets appear at the convenience store counter, and major beverage companies have introduced herbal iced teas with different supplements that are rumored to help with everything from memory to stress. There are are health food stores everywhere providing "all natural" alternatives for everything from caffeine to fertility drugs.

Perhaps the reason for this trend is that medicine has failed to provide cures for so many afflictions without having unbearable side effects, or perhaps the reason is that medicine has advanced so much that attempts to create medicines that are less harmful than synthesized medicines have resulted in this natural trend. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that stores are being bombarded with vitamin supplements, herbal foods, and "natural" drugs claiming to do what modern medicine has found difficult to accomplish.

One type of "alternative healing" is called Apitherapy, and is what I will be discussing in this paper. Apitherapy is defined as "the healing use of the products of the honeybee hive" (1). Much of apitherapy is based on the properties of bee venom, though there are other byproducts which have claimed to be benificial. The major reason this therapy has come to light is because bee venom is composed of 30 different components, many of which are peptides that should provide an anti-inflammatory affect, as well as other agents which stimulate the body's immune system. Pure bee venom (Apitox) has been tested and found to be safe in humans and animals by the International Pain Institute (2).

As with many alternative therapies, apitherapy has not been extensively tested scientifically. There have been some. The American Apitherapy Society (AAS) has tested it in relation to treating osteoarthritis. There are many supporters of honeybee byproducts as a treatment, but overall most clinical testing has failed to prove that there is much medicinal value in apitherapy. The only proven treatment has been for desensitization for those with life-threatening bee sting allergies (3).

The support for apitherapy is a function of two things: potential clinical efficacy and personal experience stories. The byproducts of honeybees seem to have a lot of potential for effective treatment of many medical conditions. One example would be propolis. Propolis is a sticky resin-like substance that bees collect from tree buds and bark and then blend with their wax to coat and protect the home of the eggs. Propolis seems to have antibiotic properties. Supporters say that propolis is a much better antibiotic than chemical antibiotics because it only kills the harmful bacteria in the body, whereas chemical antibiotics kill all bacteria in the body. There are even claims that it has been proven that propolis can even kill bacteria that have become resistant to other antibiotics (4). Royal Jelly is another compound that is supposed to have beneficial effects. The claims of support for royal jelly range from boosting energy to treating kidney disease, even boosting sex drive (5). By far, the largest body of support for apitherapy comes from the bee venom supporters. The AAS makes may claims as to the efficacy of bee venom. They say that bee venom can be prepared as an injection, liniment, ointment, cream, or salve that can treat a variety of problems. Bee venom eye drops have even been granted a provisional patent for performing such miracles as temporarily restoring color vision to a color-blind girl, curing an older man's glaucoma, and curing a man with macular degeneration (6). Many personal experiences like these have made apitherapy widely supported.

The critics of apitherapy would probably call each of the bee venom eye drop miracles a fluke, as clinical studies have yet to prove any real importance to the effectiveness of any bee byproduct. Royal jelly has only been proven to have a major impact on bees themselves (an ordinary female bee can live twenty times longer when fed royal jelly). Even the antibiotic effects of propolis, which are so loudly touted by many bee enthusiasts, have yet to be proven (3).

There is only one thing that everyone can agree on in relation to apitherapy: it needs more testing. It will be interesting to see if, in the future, the byproducts of bees will be proven effective. Even now, I am forced to wonder how no claims to effectiveness have been proven in the laboratory when so many people with so many different ailments claim that bee byproducts have helped them. Is it a fluke? A psychologic "cure"? Only time will tell.

WWW Sources

1); the Apitherapy Reference Database. 1997.

2); "Efficacy of Apitox (Bee Venom) For Osteoarthritis: A Randomized Active-Controlled Trial" from the American Apitherapy Society.

3); WebMD Apitherapy article.

4); Info page about Propolis from the Draper bee farm.

5); Info page about Royal Jelly from the Draper bee farm.

6); Article about the provisional patent for bee venom eye drops from the AAS.

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