Other common name(s): bee venom therapy (BVT), bee venom, venom immunotherapy, bee pollen
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Apitherapy refers to the use of various products of the common honeybee in alternative remedies. These include venom, propolis (a substance made by bees that is used to coat the inside of hives), raw honey, royal jelly, and pollen.
Although antitumor properties of some of the ingredients in bee products have been studied in the laboratory, there have been no clinical studies in humans showing that bee venom or other honeybee products are effective in preventing or treating cancer.
How is it promoted for use?
Practitioners claim bee venom contains an anti-inflammatory agent that relieves chronic pain and can be used to treat various diseases, including several types of arthritis, neurological problems such as multiple sclerosis, lower back pain, and migraine headaches, and skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and herpes.
Others claim that raw honey is an energy-building source containing minerals and B complex vitamins. Proponents claim it has antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antitumor properties.
Proponents claim bee pollen contains many nutrients required by the human body and that it has five to seven times more protein than beef. Pieces of honeycomb containing pollen are said to be effective for treating allergies. Ingesting bee pollen is also claimed to increase endurance, energy, and overall performance. Some people believe some of the active ingredients in bee products may have possible anti-cancer effects.
What does it involve?
The usual bee venom treatment uses live bees, which sting the patient at a specific site, with the procedure repeated over a period of time. Injections can also be used. For example, for arthritis patients, proponents suggest that the venom be injected at trigger points daily for four to six weeks.
Besides bee venom, the other most popular forms of apitherapy treatments are honey and pollen. They are most commonly taken as pills, powders, and injections. In China, raw honey is applied directly to burns as an antiseptic and painkiller. Other methods may also be used.
Bee products are widely available in pharmacies, health food stores, shops that specialize in bee products, and over the Internet.
What is the history behind it?
Various forms of apitherapy have been used by many cultures since ancient times. There is even a reference in the Koran about the medicinal properties of the liquid ("liquor") produced by bees. The cultivation of the hive has been written about as early as 800 BC. Charlemagne (742-814 AD) is said to have been treated with bee stings. In 1888, Austrian physician Phillip Terc advocated the deliberate use of bee stings as a treatment for rheumatism.
Apitherapy continues to be a popular form of alternative therapy. Studies on the use of bee products or their components to treat various conditions have appeared in the medical literature for at least the past 70 years.
What is the evidence?
Most research on bee venom has focused on the use of immunotherapy to prevent allergic reactions to bee stings. However, several animal and laboratory studies have looked at the anti-cancer effects of some ingredients of bee products, such as propolis and melittin.
Propolis is a natural compound made by honeybees to coat the inside of their hives. Some of its ingredients have shown antioxidant and antitumor properties in early laboratory and animal studies, but it has not been tested in people.
Melittin is a main component of bee venom. It is thought to kill cells it contacts by breaking them open. It also appears to have anti-inflammatory properties. According to some researchers, melittin shows activity against cancer cells grown in laboratory dishes. Scientists in Australia have changed the structure of the melittin molecule by removing the part that causes allergic reactions in some patients, keeping its cell-killing ability, and combining the molecule with an antibody to target cancer cells. Using this approach, they have been able to show some anti-cancer activity in studies using mice. Studies in people have not been reported in the available medical literature.
Some early studies have also looked at possible anticancer properties of honey. A study from Japan found that solutions containing honey had some effect against bladder cancer cells in the laboratory and against bladder tumors in mice. No studies have been reported in humans in the medical literature.
While the results from laboratory studies are encouraging, many substances, both natural and manmade, show anti-cancer activity in the laboratory but turn out not to work in people. Further studies are needed to determine whether these promising but early results with bee products will apply to humans.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Some people have extreme allergic reactions to bee stings, the most severe of which can prove fatal. Asthma attacks and one death have been attributed to the use of royal jelly. People with weakened immune systems should be cautious about consuming honey, as it may contain bacteria or fungi.
The possible effects of bee venom on pregnancy have not been well studied. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should speak with their doctors before using this treatment. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co; 1998.
Chen CN, Wu CL, Lin JK. Propolin C from propolis induces apoptosis through activating caspases, Bid and cytochrome c release in human melanoma cells. Biochem Pharmacol. 2004 Jan 1;67(1):53-66.
Chen CN. Wu CL. Lin JK. Apoptosis of human melanoma cells induced by the novel compounds propolin A and propolin B from Taiwenese propolis. Cancer Letters. 245(1-2):218-31, 2007.
Li H, Kapur A, Yang JX, Srivastava S, McLeod DG, Paredes-Guzman JF, Daugsch A, Park YK, Rhim JS. Antiproliferation of human prostate cancer cells by ethanolic extracts of Brazilian propolis and its botanical origin. Int J Oncol. 2007;31:601-606.
Rao CV, Desai D, Simi B, Kulkarni N, Amin S, Reddy BS. Inhibitory effect of caffeic acid esters on azoxymethane-induced biochemical changes and aberrant crypt foci formation in rat colon. Cancer Res. 1993;53:4182-4188.
Russell PJ, Hewish D, Carter T, Sterling-Levis K, Ow K, Hattarki M, Doughty L, Guthrie R, Shapira D, Molloy PL, Werkmeister JA, Kortt AA. Cytotoxic properties of immunoconjugates containing melittin-like peptide 101 against prostate cancer: in vitro and in vivo studies. Cancer Immunol Immunother. 2004;53(5):411-421.
Shimizu K, Das SK, Hashimoto T, Sowa Y,. Yoshida T, Sakai T, Matsuura Y, Kanazawa K, Artepillin C in Brazilian propolis induces G(0)/G(1) arrest via stimulation of Cip1/p21 expression in human colon cancer cells. Molecular Carcinogenesis. 44(4):293-9, 2005.
Swellam T, Miyanaga N, Onozawa M, Hattori K, Kawai K, Shimazui T, Akaza H. Antineoplastic activity of honey in an experimental bladder cancer implantation model: in vivo and in vitro studies. Int J Urol. 2003;10(4):213-219.
Winder D, Günzburg WH, Erfle V, Salmons B. Expression of antimicrobial peptides has an antitumour effect in human cells. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 1998;242:608-612.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 11/01/2008