To Bee or Not to Bee?

Publication: New Age Journal
Issue: 1/95
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 
not. 

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 
remission.

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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