Its proponents claim that it offers a wide range of medicinal properties, ranging from reducing inflammation to treating chronic illnesses. However, research in some of these areas is either lacking or conflicting.
This article reviews the uses, benefits, and side effects of bee venom.
What is bee venom?
Bee venom is a colorless, acidic liquid. Bees excrete it through their stingers into a target when they feel threatened.
It contains both anti-inflammatory and inflammatory compounds, including enzymes, sugars, minerals, and amino acids (1Trusted Source).
Melittin — a compound that consists of 26 amino acids — comprises about 50% of the dry weight of the venom and has been shown to have antiviral, antibacterial, and anticancer effects in some studies (1Trusted Source, 2Trusted Source).
That said, it’s primarily responsible for the pain associated with bee stings (3Trusted Source).
Bee venom also contains the peptides apamin and adolapin. Although they act as toxins, they have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties.
Additionally, it contains phospholipase A2, an enzyme and major allergen that causes inflammation and cell damage. Nevertheless, according to some research, the enzyme may also have anti-inflammatory and immunoprotective effects (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
As you can see, the substances in bee venom have been associated with both positive and negative health effects.
Importantly, while research shows that some compounds in the venom may have beneficial properties, the isolated effects of each component are unknown, as many components have not been well studied (5Trusted Source).
How is it used?
Apitherapy is an alternative medicine practice that uses bee products — including their venom — to treat and prevent illnesses, pain, and more (6Trusted Source).
Although bee venom has recently experienced a surge in popularity, bee-venom therapy has been used in traditional medicine practices for thousands of years (6Trusted Source).
The venom is used in a number of ways and available in many forms. For example, it’s added to products like extracts, supplements, moisturizers, and serums.
You can purchase bee-venom products, such as moisturizers, lotions, and lozenges, online or in specialty stores.
Meanwhile, bee-venom injections can be administered by healthcare professionals.
Lastly, bee venom is used in live bee acupuncture or bee-sting therapy — a treatment method in which live bees are placed on your skin and a sting is induced (7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
Summary Some substances in bee venom, including melittin and apamin, may have medicinal properties. Bee-venom therapy has been used for thousands of years as a natural treatment for a variety of conditions.
While not all of the purported benefits of bee venom are backed by science, research has shown that it has several powerful medicinal properties.
Has anti-inflammatory properties
One of the most well-documented benefits of bee venom is its powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Many of its components have been shown to reduce inflammation, particularly melittin — its main component.
Although melittin can cause itching, pain, and inflammation when delivered in high doses, it has potent anti-inflammatory effects when used in small amounts (10Trusted Source).
Melittin has been shown to suppress inflammatory pathways and reduce inflammatory markers, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) and interleukin 1 beta (IL-1β) (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
May reduce arthritis-related symptoms
The anti-inflammatory effects of bee venom have been shown to especially benefit those with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a painful inflammatory condition that affects your joints.
An 8-week study in 120 people with RA found that bee-venom acupuncture, which employed 5–15 bee stings every other day, provided symptom relief effects that were similar to those of traditional RA medications like Methotrexate and Celecoxib (12Trusted Source).
Another study in 100 people with RA showed that combining bee-sting therapy with traditional medications like Methotrexate, Sulfasalazine, and Meloxicam was more effective at reducing pain and joint swelling than treatment with the traditional medication alone (13Trusted Source).
Though promising, more high-quality studies are needed to confirm these effects (14Trusted Source).
May benefit skin health
Multiple skincare companies have started adding bee venom to products like serums and moisturizers. This ingredient may promote skin health in several ways, including by reducing inflammation, providing antibacterial effects, and reducing wrinkles.
A 12-week study in 22 women demonstrated that applying a facial serum containing bee venom twice daily significantly reduced wrinkle depth and total wrinkle count, compared with the placebo (15Trusted Source).
Another 6-week study found that 77% of participants with mild to moderate acne who used a serum containing purified bee venom twice daily experienced an improvement in acne, compared with the placebo (16Trusted Source).
What’s more, test-tube studies have shown that the venom has powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects against the acne-causing bacteria Propionibacterium acnes (17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
May benefit immune health
Bee venom has been shown to have beneficial effects on immune cells that mediate allergic and inflammatory responses.
Evidence from animal studies suggests that bee-venom therapy might help reduce symptoms of autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, encephalomyelitis, and rheumatoid arthritis, by decreasing inflammation and bolstering your immune response (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).
Other animal studies suggest that bee-venom therapy may also help treat allergic conditions like asthma (21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).
It’s thought that bee venom increases the production of regulatory T cells, or Tregs, which inhibit allergen responses and reduce inflammation. Although promising, the effects of bee-venom therapy in humans with allergies is unknown (22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
Additionally, venom immunotherapy, in which bee venom is administered by a healthcare professional by injection — is used to treat people with severe allergies to bee stings.
Research has shown that this treatment is safe and effective and can reduce the future risk of serious reactions to bee stings. In fact, it’s recommended as a first-line treatment for those who are allergic to the venom (24Trusted Source).
Other potential benefits
Though research is limited, bee venom may benefit the following conditions.
- Neurological diseases. Some research suggests that bee-venom therapy may help reduce symptoms related to neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, though human studies are limited (25Trusted Source).
- Pain. One study showed that bee-venom acupuncture, along with traditional medication, significantly reduced pain and improved functional status in 54 patients with chronic lower back pain, compared with the placebo group (26Trusted Source).
- May fight Lyme disease. Some research suggests that bee venom and isolated melittin may have antimicrobial effects against Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. However, more research is needed (27Trusted Source).
Although these potential benefits are promising, more research is needed to confirm them.
Summary Bee venom has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and may benefit the health of your skin and immune system. It may also improve certain medical conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain.
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Precautions and potential downsides
While bee venom has been shown to offer several potential benefits, it’s important to note that studies supporting these benefits are limited. In fact, most available research has been conducted on animals or in test tubes.
Thus, it’s unclear how effective bee-venom therapy is as an alternative medicine treatment, as well as whether it’s any more effective than traditional treatments for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, chronic pain, or autoimmune diseases.
Certain methods of bee-venom therapy, including acupuncture, can lead to side effects, such as pain, swelling, and redness.
Additionally, bee-venom therapy can cause serious side effects or even death in highly allergic individuals by causing anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can make it hard to breathe (28Trusted Source).
Other serious adverse effects related to this therapy have also been documented, including hyperventilation, fatigue, appetite loss, extreme pain, increased bleeding risk, and vomiting (29Trusted Source).
Of particular note, a review of 145 studies on the side effects of bee-venom therapy found that an average of 29% of people experienced adverse effects — ranging from mild to severe — after treatment (28Trusted Source).
In addition, the review found that compared with a saline injection, bee-venom acupuncture increased the occurrence of adverse side effects by a whopping 261% (28Trusted Source).
In susceptible individuals, using topical bee-venom products like serums and moisturizers can also cause adverse reactions, such as itching, hives, and redness (30Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source).
Based on the available research, it’s safe to say that adverse reactions — ranging from mild to potentially fatal — are common when using bee venom. For this reason, you should exercise extreme caution when using these products or treatments.
Bee-venom therapy and acupuncture should only be administered by a qualified healthcare professional.
Summary Bee venom can cause side effects, ranging from mild to life threatening. Bee-venom therapy should only be administered by medical professionals.
The bottom line
Bee venom is a natural product that has risen in popularity due to its variety of potential health benefits.
It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, may benefit skin health, and can possibly help treat symptoms related to various health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain.
However, using bee-venom products or undergoing bee-venom therapy may cause serious side effects, so be sure to practice caution and consult a trained medical professional for advice before trying it out.