Features and Occasionals

Ancient Folk Medicine, Modern Practices

By Katherine Pioli

Bee-created products, more than just honey, have been used by humans for millennium as healing remedies. Called apitherapy, this alternative medicine encompasses the use of pollen, propolis, raw honey, royal jelly, and bee venom. None of these products or practices have been widely tested or promoted by modern Western medical science and rarely are they even addressed by the complementary medical community, but apitherapy practices are ancient.

Hippocrates wrote about apitherapy as did the Chinese in texts dating back 2,000 years. Many traditional folk medicines based on bee-products are still widely used today. Propolis, for instance, remains a fairly common form of self-medication for seasonal colds and boosting the immune systems, and is found on the shelves of most natural grocery stores.

BEE POLLEN, considered a “superfood,” starts with granules of flower pollen selectively gathered by bees, which the insects then mix with saliva and nectar from the plant. This magical food cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. Com­posed of 40% protein, it is also full of vitamins (A,C,E), trace minerals, essential fatty acids and carbohydrates. Collection “traps” set at the entrance to a hive brush off about 60% of the pollen as a bee enters, harvesting a portion for humans while leaving enough to feed the colony.

Though a few double-blind placebo-controlled studies don’t support the health claims associated with bee pollen, many people including athletes take it as a natural energy enhancer. It is used to treat allergies, to reduce the risk of adult-onset asthma, to treat addiction and, because it contains the antioxidant rutin, known to strengthen capillaries and correct circulatory problems, is also used to support the cardiovascular system. Those who eat pollen, available in capsules, powder and granule form, usually consume a tablespoon or two daily. Try soaking it over night to make it more digestible, dissolving it in water or tea, mixing it into drinks and smoothies, or sprinkling it over cereal.

A warning for those with known pollen allergies: there are reports of severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis, resulting from the ingestion of even small amounts of bee pollen, less than a teaspoon. Even if you don’t have known allergies, start by eating a single granule and wait for signs of reaction—itchy eyes, nose, throat, shortness of breath, hives. Slowly increase your dose each day while continuing to monitor for an allergic response.

Propolis, a sticky substance bees place around the inside of their hive, is made of beeswax and other secretions with resins from the buds of poplar and conifer trees. Propolis is a hive’s defense against disease. It’s highly antimicrobial, which means that it’s antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. Centuries ago, people used propolis as an ointment to rub on wounds, to relax intense itching, or for skin diseases such as eczema. Today, propolis is commonly found in chewing gum, face cream, lozenges, ointments and cosmetics. Internally, some use propolis as an immune booster to prevent colds, as an anti-inflamatory agent, or to treat throat and nose cancer. Externally applied, some use it to treat genital herpes and cold sores (the National Institutes of Health lists propolis as a “potentially” effective external treatment for herpes and cold sores).

RAW HONEY. Whereas most store-bought honey has been tampered with, cut with water and enhanced with sugar, this is the real deal—no additives, preservatives, pasteurization or processing. Spreading honey on a piece of toast or adding it to a cup of tea is more beneficial than you might think. Honey has powerful antioxidants that can keep your immune system strong, stabilize blood pressure, relieve pain and calm nerves. Some even eat honey to combat seasonal allergies. But, while honey does contain trace amounts of pollen, it is mostly pollen from flowers and would not address grass or tree allergies. Also, if building immunity to pollen is your goal, only locally produced honey with local pollens would likely be effective. Scientific studies do not support the use of honey as an effective treatment for allergies.

Because it’s antimicrobial, raw honey, and only unheated raw honey, can be helpful when applied topically to wounds, rashes or burns. The power of honey comes from its high concentration of sugar, which sucks water from microbes killing them through dehydration, and from its acidity, which in the pH range from 3.2 to 4.5 is just strong enough to disable certain microbes. Also, when combined with salt, say from the sweat on your skin, honey will produce small amounts of hydrogen peroxide killing any pathogens it touches.

These same antibacterial qualities make raw honey a great beauty product useful for treating acne, slowing aging, moisturizing and opening pores. Treating your face with honey, according to some beauty experts, is as easy as applying a thin layer of raw honey to damp skin. Leave on for 30 minutes, then rinse off. For a cleansing boost, add some tea tree or lavender oil to the honey, or mix in some coconut oil and a dash of nutmeg to make a gentle makeup remover.

ROYAL JELLY, a milky substance produced by worker bees to feed a colony’s larvae, is composed of water, proteins, sugars, fats, vitamins, salts and amino acids. It is the source of sustenance for all bee larvae—workers, drones and potential queens—and is not collected in the hive but rather fed directly to the larvae from glands in the heads of worker (nurse) bees. The jelly only collects in harvestable amounts in the cells of queen larvae, which are given the largest amounts of jelly. This excessive force-feeding triggers in the larvae the development of queen morphology such as the ovaries needed to lay eggs. The most productive hives will make up to a pound of jelly in a six-month season.

Royal jelly can be eaten in raw jelly form, half a teaspoon twice a day, but it’s most often consumed in capsule or tablet form. To receive the full effect of the supplement, it’s recommended to take without water and before eating. Taking a digestive enzyme supplement with the royal jelly may also increase absorption into the body, but as with bee pollen, royal jelly has been known to cause allergic reactions. Take the necessary precautions.

Common folk uses for royal jelly claim benefits both internal and external—reducing wrinkles, stimulating hair growth, easing asthma, hay fever, PMS, menopause and increasing energy and sexual vitality. Some studies of royal jelly conducted on lab animals have shown antitumor, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Tests conducted on both animals and humans have demonstrated that 50-100 mg of royal jelly taken daily can lower cholesterol.

BEE STING THERAPY (OR BEE VENOM THERAPY (BVT), the most illusive form of apitherapy, is embraced by folk medicine and dabbled in by the medical community. It is difficult to find practitioners and even more difficult to determine if the health claims are valid.

The first clinical study of BVT, conducted by the Austrian physician Phillip Terc in 1888, explored the therapy as a treatment for rheumatism. The practice never gained great popularity, but it did take hold as a folk remedy in the United States due mostly to the work of Charles Mraz, founder of the American Apitherapy Society. Conducting bee venom treatments out of his home in Vermont, Mraz claimed to have treated thousands of people primarily for autoimmune disorders. He also initiated many clinical studies of the therapy and established standards for the medical use of venom, supplying medical-grade venom to pharmaceutical companies around the world.

According to the American Api­therapy Society, bee venom is an effective treatment for a long list of diseases and ailments including: immune system problems such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis, cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, endocrine disorders (irregular periods and menstrual cramps) as well as mood swings, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema and warts.

Honey bee venom has more than 40 active substances, but the key to its purported medical benefits likely lies in its abundance of melittin. This agent causes the body to naturally produce cortisol, a steroid hormone used in medicine to suppress the immune system and activate anti-stress and anti-inflammatory pathways.

Methods of treatment vary depending on whether they are administered at home or in a clinic. As a home remedy, BVT treatments are most often delivered by holding a bee with a pair of tweezers and allowing it to directly sting the body —for arthritic patients the sting occurs on the arthritis trigger point. The stinger may then be left in place for 10 to 15 minutes. The number and frequency of sessions vary depending on the reason for treatment. In a trained medical setting, physicians administer BVT via syringe with an injectable form of venom inserted just under the skin. Allergic reactions to the treatment are a serious concern and treatments are usually started in small test doses with epinephrine on hand.

Bee venom therapy could well some day become a tool used by modern Western medicine. Curiosity on the subject has already led to some research, including one study funded by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and conducted by Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The results of the study, released in 2005, concluded that out of nine patients “three had subjective amelioration of symptoms and two showed objective improvement” leading the research team to report no conclusive evidence supporting the therapy but recommending larger follow-up studies.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2014.