The healing power of bees: The rewards of apitherapy from aging to arthritis

The healing power of bees: The rewards of apitherapy from aging to arthritis

From the moment they hatch until their bodies return to the earth, bees play an outsized role in the health of the ecosystem. Beyond anchoring the food chain and making honey, they also create a number of less well-known products.

Folk medicine has long known that products like royal jelly, propolis, and bee venom have potent medicinal effects. Today’s scientific community is finally noticing, too, as recent research bears out just how effective these natural substances are. Read on to learn more about the wealth of bee products perfectly suited for a host of ailments. 

How do bees affect their environment?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the ecosystem as we know it would collapse without bees. As pollinators, bees are responsible for fertilizing a number of different plants. Without them, many flowers and crops would stop reproducing, and about a third of the food you normally find on your plate would vanish.

Even in death bees contribute to the ecosystem. Bees that die inside the hive are removed by “undertaker” members of the colony. These undertakers wait until the dead bees dry out a little (so they weigh less) before carrying them out and depositing them in the surrounding area. There, their tiny bodies decompose, returning nutrients to the soil.

This might not seem like a big deal, but during the summer, a normal colony can lose upwards of a thousand bees a day. That’s a lot of nutrients re-entering the carbon cycle.

Does bee venom treat arthritis?

Despite their obvious contributions, it’s hard to think of how great bees are when you’re being stung. That sharp stabbing pain and the lingering throbbing are low on the list of enjoyable life experiences. If you have arthritis, however, getting stung might just be worth all that discomfort.

Arthritis is a degenerative disease. Over time, it takes a healthy person and steadily inflames their joints, breaks down their cartilage, and changes their bones. In its severest stages, pain, stiffness, and deformity become part of your everyday life.

Bee venom, however, may hold the key to addressing this condition. After water, the second largest component of bee venom is a peptide called melittin, which has anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive (pain inhibiting) properties.

These traits seemingly make bee venom perfect for both addressing the underlying inflammation that causes arthritis, and remedying the discomfort associated with the disease. And, it may work as effectively as popular prescription arthritis drugs.

One painful sounding research study put this theory to the test. After dividing participants with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) into two groups, researchers gave the control group prescription RA medicine while the other group engaged in a treatment technique known as bee venom acupuncture.

The technique involved stinging the participants five to 15 times a day, every other day, for eight weeks. You might expect the bee venom acupuncture participants to come away with little more than swelling for their trouble. The results, however, turned out to be much more beneficial.

By the end of the study, comparisons of the two groups yielded no significant differences. In other words, bee venom acupuncture worked just as well as established arthritis medicine. Both groups saw significant improvements in stiffness, swelling, tenderness, and hand strength. And, when both bee venom and RA meds were used simultaneously, participants experienced better results than treatment with medication alone.

That’s not all, though. A small study in rabbits suggests that bee venom may go beyond relieving arthritis symptoms and actually stop the disease’s progression.

The use of bee venom in medicine

The promising research on bee venom and arthritis is leading researchers to look at its efficacy in several other conditions. For example, an enzyme in bee venom called phospholipase A2 (bvPLA2) may help treat conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzeimer’s disease.

Still others are looking at bee venom’s potential impacts on liver fibrosis, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and chronic pain. While the emerging data are exciting, no one is suggesting that you go out and purposely try to get stung.

For those with allergies, bee stings can trigger anaphylaxis, a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction. Even if you’re not allergic, provoking a bee sting (or a series of them!) probably isn’t a good idea. If you’re interested in pursuing bee venom acupuncture, your best bet is to find an apitherapy practitioner in your area.

The health benefits of royal jelly

Although it may sound like a type of jam, royal jelly is a nutritional powerhouse. Bees use this milky goop to feed the colony’s larvae and its queen, and it’s chock full of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and proteins.

Royal jelly is made by worker bees who secrete it from specialized glands in their heads. The precious liquid is discharged directly into the honeycomb cells where the bee larvae — aka baby bees — swim around in it as they consume it. This is short-lived, however. After a mere three days, the young bees switch from a royal jelly-only diet, to eating pollen and honey.

The queen, by contrast, continues to eat royal jelly exclusively. Its superior nutrition enables her to grow significantly larger than the other members of the colony and become the only sexually mature female in the hive. Perhaps her most interesting trait, however, is her longevity.

All bee larvae start out exactly the same. But, while a queen bee lives an average of one to two years, worker bees max out at 200 days — and that’s in the fall and winter when they’re in a semi-hibernation state. During the frenetic activity of summer, a worker bee’s life expectancy hovers between 15 and 38 days.

Scientists don’t fully understand why there’s such a gap, but it’s hard not to attribute the queen’s long life to her diet of royal jelly. Of course, this also makes it an intriguing substance for humans. Despite what the internet says, there’s nothing to suggest that royal jelly can help you live longer. But, it may possess other regenerative properties.

A case in point is royal jelly’s effects on collagen. Collagen is a protein that helps to keep your skin looking youthful, and it declines as you age. This process picks up speed after menopause. For postmenopausal women, this can mean a loss of 30% of their skin’s collagen within five years.

Royal jelly, however, appears to be able to stimulate collagen production — and not just a little bit. Postmenopausal rats that were fed royal jelly began producing collagen at almost the same levels as their premenopausal counterparts

Although this study couldn’t pinpoint the specific components in the royal jelly that were responsible, scientists believe it has to do with some of the fatty acids it contains. And, since studies on human skin cells have yielded similar results, royal jelly likely has the same effect on human skin.

Royal jelly may be able to spur more than skin-deep change. Human trials involving royal jelly supplements taken for six months showed a number of benefits. Study participants exhibited an increase in red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Additionally, their blood glucose tolerance increased — i.e. their bodies learned to deal with sugar better.

Better mental health scores were also a feature, suggesting that depression and anxiety might benefit from royal jelly treatment. Indeed, rodent research shows 10-hydroxy-trans-2 decenoic acid (HDEA), an unsaturated fatty acid found only in royal jelly, can effectively address both conditions in mice. In fact, when it comes to anxiety, HDEA may be as effective as antidepressants.

The properties of propolis

While many people have heard of royal jelly, bee propolis is arguably the least familiar of the pollinator’s products. Also known as bee glue, propolis is derived from a mixture of bee saliva, pollen, wax, and resin. Resin, in case you’re wondering, is a thick and sticky substance made by trees and plants in response to injury from insects or pathogens. 

Propolis’ stickiness makes it ideal for sealing any cracks in the beehive. It helps keep out wind and other elements, and maintain the hive’s internal temperature. But weather sealing isn’t the only thing it does.

Due to its flavonoid and aromatic acid content, the resin in propolis is toxic to many organisms — but not the bees. In fact, propolis is antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and has antioxidant properties. This makes it an effective antibacterial barrier against pathogens and helps to keep the bees healthy. Essentially, propolis is the bees’ proprietary antibiotic.

Propolis has been used for millennia because of its potent healing attributes. More recently, it’s been subject to many different research studies — and it hasn’t disappointed. Indeed, propolis seems to have multiple applications, from treating yeast infections to helping with stomach issues caused by parasites like giardia.

Its high concentration of flavonoids — plant compounds with numerous benefits — means that propolis also shows promise as an immune-boosting agent. And, as a robust antioxidant, it has regenerative effects when it comes to wound healing. Propolis even provides protection in mice livers that have been poisoned with mercury (yes, animal testing is awful).

These characteristics, along with its efficacy for more day-to-day concerns like canker sores, fungal infections, and sore throats, have made propolis a hot naturopathic commodity.

The final word on apitherapy

Apitherapy — the use of bee products in medicine — has been around for thousands of years, and modern medicine is starting to catch up. But, while the benefits of bee products are undeniable, production isn’t limitless. Royal jelly, propolis, and bee venom are precious resources for bees, and require intensive energy investments from their makers.

If you’re interested in apitherapy products, supporting local producers helps to ensure that you’re bolstering responsible hive management practices. These bee stewards ensure they only take what the bees can afford to spare. Since raw honey and beeswax are both produced more prolifically and can provide some of the same benefits — especially when it comes to skincare — it’s also worth exploring them first.

Bees seem perfectly adapted to help humans in countless ways. While it’s natural to covet the near magical products they make, shop conscientiously to make sure you’re caring for the bees in return.

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