I am not going to lie. Getting stung—especially in the face—hurts like a mutha. And yet, like everything else that is bee, I revere this substance as magical. Bee venom has been used to bolster the immune system, treat arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and has been demonstrated to fight cancer and HIV. (Unless of course you are deathly allergic.)
In 2008, at the Department of Arthropathy, Zhejiang Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, Hangzhou, researchers found that a combined application of bee venom therapy and medication was superior to the sole use of medication in relieving rheumatoid arthritis, and that bee sting therapy can reduce both the need for western medication and the number of relapses.
Aside from scientific proof, I have come across many a beekeeper who has experienced relief from bee stings. And if you don’t believe me, you can easily Google your way to tales from beekeepers, like Ben from Tennessee who became a beekeeper after he accidentally got stung in his trailer. Suddenly his joints didn’t hurt as much, and after 24 years of chronic arthritis pain, he found significant relief.
The first time I got stung was while filming Dee Lusby, the Queen Bee of Organic Farming, in the remote desert rangeland of southern Arizona. Dee, who believes in 110 percent treatment-free beekeeping, and has 900 hives of “free-range” organic bees spread out over ranches from Benson to Sasabe, took us out at sundown to see some of her bees. We weren’t wearing suits and when she pried open the lid with her hive tool, hundreds of buzzing bees simultaneously bubbled to the top. Thousands of eyes were peering at me and then suddenly one got caught in my hair.
“Stay Calm,” my co–director George instructed until one got lodged in his hair too. All at once, we were both running. And the bees were following. I got stung on the back of my head and thigh. George got stung too.
“You got stung by African bees,” Dee mused. She was laughing. Wild bees are found all over Arizona. She was making a point that these “Africanized bees,” also known as “killer” bees were not as aggressive as most claimed. Africanized honey bees are so-called because the African honey bees introduced to Brazil interbred with existing feral European honey bees to create a hybridized, or Africanized, honey bee.
I iced the back of my head and learned that a honeybee dies when she stings. I also learned that no one typically visits their bees in the evenings once they have all returned from the field, following a long day of non-stop pollinating. Dee was playing a prank or subjecting us to a weird sort of initiation.
The second time I got stung I was in a hot humid field somewhere in Pasco County, Florida. Cows were mooing in the distance while turkey vultures flew overhead. We were filming Dr. Jeff Pettis, entomologist and lead researcher of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Beltsville Bee Laboratory (BBL), and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, former Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture. They were scooping up live bees and putting them into liquid-filled vials to ship on dry ice back to the lab. They needed them to conduct more autopsies in relation to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). They were also inspecting Jim Doan’s hives, frame by frame. Jim Doan, who was one of the first to witness CCD, started losing bees in the spring of 2006. He’s been beekeeping since the age of five. He suspected systemic pesticides.
I wasn’t wearing a veil as I held a black fuzzy sound boom, which the bees definitely did not like. A whizzing bee stung me underneath the eye as she accidentally collided into my face. Within 10 minutes I looked like a Scandinavian chipmunk. I had to sit out the rest of the shoot with some wrapped-up dry ice against my cheek. The scientists gave me Benadryl. I then fell asleep on the way to the Kinkos Fed Ex. The next day my right eye was swollen shut. It hurt and itched, and was warm and awful.
George got stung on the eyelid a few days later. “Shit, I lost my camera man,” was my first thought. Terrible, I know. I fetched him ice and created a poultice with toothpaste. But he barely had a reaction! I was furious.
As I continued to research bees, I discovered apitherapy, a traditional folk remedy that dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, and uses honey bee products as medicine. Many holistic beekeepers believe in bee sting therapy which uses live bee venom (the original hypodermic needle) to treat conditions like arthritis.
The most abundant, active component of the venom is melittin, which has powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties. Soon, George and I were asking some of the beekeepers to administer stings to our spines. I had broken my L-1 and five ribs in an accident, and had lingering pain. I would say a prayer and thank the bees for giving me their life, and within a few days I would feel relief. We were told that the reactive stage is the most important part of the treatment.
We got so into it that as a rite of passage, George wanted to get stung on the penis. We were in a beekeeper’s side yard in Ohio. The couple had gone out and returned to find George and I huddled suspiciously.
In 2009, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis were successful in using “melittin: to shrink or slow the growth of tumors in mice.” They also demonstrated that melittin can destroy HIV by poking holes in the envelope surrounding the virus.
Melittin’s anti-tumor potential has been known for years, but it hasn’t been used as a drug because it also attacks healthy cells, including vital red blood cells.
Today, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, researchers have found a way, using the burgeoning field of nanotechnology, to pinpoint tumors for attack by melittin, while largely shielding healthy cells. They do this by attaching the bee venom ingredient to nanoparticles, which are ultra-tiny, synthetically manufactured spheres called nanobees. They inject them into the blood stream where the nanobees circulate until they reach and attack cancerous tumors. The approach also has the potential to avoid some of the toxic side effects seen in older cancer therapies like chemotherapy.
On New Year’s Eve December 31, 2008, I went to fetch the mail and found one single bee dead on my doorstep. Even though I began to experience regular bee visitations, I still felt like the luckiest girl alive whenever a bee flew into my life. We were still filming Vanishing of the Bees and were in search of finishing funds for some key shoots in France and Australia. A few weeks earlier, I awoke to find my living room window literally covered in bees. There were no noticeable flowers or crops near my apartment to pollinate. In fact the living room window overlooked a parking lot. It was amazing.
I picked up the bee and in a moment of joy literally kissed her with gratitude as I headed to place her on my altar. Within seconds, I felt a painful tingle on my bottom lip. I thought the bee was dead. She wasn’t. Now I had bee-stung lips for realzies. My lip, which is already naturally poofy, was horribly huge within 10 minutes. I had a tantric workshop to go to that evening. How was I going to attend, looking like a botox injection gone wild? I was mortified. I was on my way to see my shrink and when he saw my mouth, he greeted me with panic.
I sat there on his couch trying to talk, and every once in a while he’d interrupt my painful slur to ask if I wanted to go to the hospital. I knew the drill by now. There was nothing to do but wait it out. I put my lip on ice, rubbed in a homeopathic sting cream, and popped four Advil. It was a miracle. By early evening, my bottom lip looked Angelina Jolie-ish.
A bee’s venom contains several substances that destroy cells. These include peptides and enzymes that break through and destroy the layer of fats lining each cell. The venom also destroys mast cells in the skin, which are part of the body’s immune system. This releases histamine, which encourages blood vessels to dilate and allows immune cells to reach the sting site faster and neutralize the venom. Beekeepers who get stung on a regular basis actually become immune to the bee’s barb, which delivers the venom, thus making it easier for them to work in the field without gloves or a veil.
Unfortunately, our current medical establishment still largely rejects apitherapy as a viable treatment. But in light of recent findings, this is slowly changing. Some may deem it quackery, but I have to say, I like a little bee venom running through my veins every once in a while.
For more information, check out the American Apitherapy Society.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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