Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Take Two Stings and Call Me in the Morning

Being stung by a bee is something that most of us try to avoid. Bee stings hurt. And that is the result that insects want when they sting humans.

But most insects don't have the ability to sting. Insects that can sting are members of the insect order Hymenoptera, which includes bees, wasps and ants. And the ones that sting are all females. Why are females the only insects that sting? It's because the insect stinger is a modified ovipositor, the structure on the tail end of an insect that is used to lay eggs. And only female insects have such a device.

Insects that sting do so for one of two reasons. By far the most common reason, if you count the number of species of insects that function that way, is to paralyze an arthropod as food for an immature. These wasps -- mud daubers, for example -- sting to acquire food and seldom sting in defense of themselves or their nest. But if they do, the pain is minimal -- at least compared to the other type of stinging insects. Entomologists call these parasitic wasps "offensive stingers."

The other insect stingers are called "defensive stingers" by entomologists. These insects include bees, which feed on nectar or pollen, and wasps, such as yellow jackets, which kill their arthropod prey with their jaws. Defensive stingers, as the name suggests, use stingers to defend themselves or their nest. These stinging insects inject a poison that is designed to inflict maximum pain on a victim.

Honey bees are well-known defensive stingers. Unlike all other stinging insects, the honey bee leaves her stinger in the skin of the victim. The loss of the stinger and the end of the abdomen causes the bee to die. But the detached stinger continues to pump pain-inducing venom into the victim.

Honey bee venom is a complex mix of chemicals that includes the main component, a protein called mellitin, and hyaluronidase, phospholipase, acid phosphatase and histamine. Together these chemicals cause pain and swelling and, in susceptible people, the anaphylactic shock associated with a sting.

For centuries, people have believed that products produced by the honey bee have medicinal benefits. Using bee products, such as propolis, royal jelly, beeswax, honey and bee venom, for healing purposes is known as apitherapy. The term is based on Apis, the genus name of the honey bee. We also see the term in the place where bees are kept -- the apiary.

One of the most interesting of the apitherapy approaches is the use of bee venom. Bee venom is purported to be useful for arthritis, bursitis, tendonitis, keloids, shingles and multiple sclerosis. While scientific research has not been able to prove the value of bee venom in treating such conditions, many testimonials exist as to its benefits.

So how does honey bee venom therapy work? Well, you need to be injected with a dose of venom. Some advocates say the injection must be near the site of the problem, say an arthritic knee. This can be done by collecting the venom from bees and injecting the chemical through a needle. Or, as is more frequently done, "au natural" by letting the bee do the stinging. How does that work? Just grab a female bee by the thorax, press it down on the desired location and "bingo," you have received one bee dose!

What is the proper dose of honey bee venom? That, like the effectiveness of the treatment, also seems to be ill defined. Some folks say a sting a day is sufficient. Others tout a weekly dose of 50 or more stings. Either way, I can assure you that, because of the nature of the chemicals involved, some pain will follow. In general, as a person receives more and more stings, the reaction to each is less painful. Of course, the potential remains that one more bee sting might send a person into anaphylactic shock -- and no one can predict when that might happen.

So, my feeling about bee venom therapy is that until I see more scientific information, I will try to keep bee stings at a minimum. After all, bee stings do hurt. Maybe that is the secret to bee venom therapy -- it just masks the other aches and pains!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox