The Latest Beauty Fad - Bee Venom - Herbal Health

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Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Latest Beauty Fad - Bee Venom

Just when I think I have heard it all before, along comes another craze that propels me into action, galvanising my research into it in order to verify or substantiate some of the more outrageous claims that are being made. I refer here to bee venom of course, the latest trend in anti-ageing beauty products and hailed as nature’s answer to botox, little realising that botox is also a natural poison. Bee venom is now the latest magic ingredient to be added to skin creams, lip-plumping potions and sticky face masks all in the desperate desire to halt or reverse the signs of ageing. Endorsed by celebrities (young and old) further enhances its appeal to the masses who religiously follow these trends and who do not readily question the veracity or reliability of the marketing claims and the hype that usually surrounds anything associated with anti-ageing.
So let’s examine what the fuss is all about and try and verify some of the claims that have been made to see if there is any proper evidence behind such claims that could justify the exorbitant cost of these elixirs of youth…..

Our relationship with bees

The humble honey bee with which humans
have enjoyed a long history and a long
and healthy relationship
There are many different varieties of bees, one of which is the honey bee with which humans have traditionally had a long and healthy relationship. Of course, I refer to our cultivation of honey (eg. acacia, manuka, clover, runny etc…), royal jelly and the various other products from it such as bee pollen and propolis, both valuable in medicine and health. The latest product to be ‘cultivated’ from the honey bee is its venom because of its purported reputation as an anti-ageing ingredient. We know that bees sting, the mechanism of which is located in its abdomen (as opposed to its proboscis) which is often a common misconception. Live stings (ie. a sting as a normal response to its defence against attack from another organism such as a human usually kills the bees because the entire sting apparatus is ejected along with the sting and embedded into the host). However, collection of the bee venom does not rely on this method (apart from the obvious risk!), and so smaller quantities of venom are ejected with each sting and the bee remains alive for a bit longer than its usual 'one sting and die' approach!

The uses and benefits of bee products
  • acacia honey - bees traditionally kept in hives close to acacia trees (Acacia spp) tend to collect nectar locally and the honey is  made from the acacia tree blossom nectar rather than from a mixture of plants/flowers. For this reason the product can be labelled specifically as acacia honey.
  • manuka honey - made in the same way as acacia except hives are kept close to the manuka tree (tea tree) Leptospermum scoparium. Slight variations in chemical composition to the acacia honey with manuka being popular as a health supplement as well as proprietary products.
  • clover honey - again, same as acacia and manuka, the honey is derived from nectar collected from the clover plant. More prevalent in the North America and Canada because of the greater expanse of grasslands available where clover tends to grow and limited availability in the UK and Europe due to loss of wild meadows as a result of increased urbanisation
  • honey - widely available in supermarkets and made from nectar sourced from many different plants/flowers. Much depends on taste and flavour of the honey which is dictated by the quality of the nectar and how well the plants are cultivated and cared for. Organic varieties are available but again, choice depends on your taste preferences. For health purposes, honey has a host of benefits ranging from being a digestive aid, good for cuts & open wounds (great antibacterial properties), great nutrient, good for inflammatory disorders and a great alternative to refined sugar. It is also added to a range of toiletries and beauty products for its cosmetic benefits
  • propolis - taken as supplements, propolis is a bee product made from the resinous exudate collected by bees from the leaf bud of certain trees (especially the poplar). It is modified by the bees’ enzymes which use it as a structural component of their hives. It is rich in fats, amino acids, alcohol ethers and trace elements such as copper, iron, manganese and zinc. it is also high in vitamins (especially B vitamins, C, E and proto-vitamin A). It also possesses antibiotic properties and is good for mild pain relief. It is also effective in promoting regeneration of collagen, cartilage, bone and dental pulp
  • royal jelly - taken as supplements and as the term implies, this is a bee product that is made exclusively for the development of the queen bee. It therefore contains a host of nutrients including amino acids, vitamins (B group and C mainly) and metabolites. It is also antibacterial, an immune booster, a digestive aid and numerous other health benefits
  • bee pollen - taken as supplements in tablet form, bee pollen gathered by bees during their pollinating activities contains many nutrients including vitamins, proteins, fats, sugar, carbohydrate, growth hormones, co-enzymes and amino acids. People take it for various conditions but generally as a health aid and for allergic conditions. It has cosmetic uses when applied topically and for healing purposes
  • beeswax - beeswax is a product made from the honeycomb of bees. The 3 major beeswax products are yellow beeswax, white beeswax and beeswax absolute. Yellow beeswax s the crude product obtained from the honeycomb, white beeswax is the bleaches version of yellow beeswax and beeswax absolute is made by treating yellow beeswax with alcohol. Unsurprisingly, each have their particular uses from medicine to manufacturing, from food and beverages to the cosmetic & beauty industry.
The collection of bee venom

 A typical bee venom
collection frame
The collection and sale of honey and other bee products rely on bees being alive and in healthy numbers. There has long been a traditional and synergistic relationship between humans and bees which continues to this day not only in Europe (although it is in danger in the UK at present due to the dwindling population of bees) but also in many other parts of the world. Early collection methods of the 1960s involved surgical removal of the venom gland or squeezing each individual bee until a droplet could be collected from the tip of the sting. Mercifully, this barbaric process has been taken over by more ethical methods which allegedly exercise some sensitivity to the suffering of bees and keeping them alive. However, recent methods involve the use of an electric shock which is the trigger or irritant that initiates the reflex action in bees to sting. One of the designs uses a collection frame (literally a frame wired with electrodes and covered with a piece of glass). The frame is mounted in a bee hive and when the bees come into contact with it, they receive a 'mild’ electric shock and sting the glass. The venom secreted onto the glass dries up to resemble a white powder (rather like salt) and it is scraped off, collected and purified (to remove debris such as pollen, dust, dirt etc….). It is worth noting that an enormous amount of stings are needed to collect a very small fragment of venom (to give some idea, it takes over 10,000 bee stings to collect just 1g of venom) and although the initial stings do not kill the bees, in time following many stings, the sacs empty and the bee eventually dies (prematurely in comparison to its lifespan). In New Zealand, the cost of bee venom far exceeds the current value of gold! It also needs to be stated that this method is not useful for African honey bees or the more defensive honey bees in other parts of the world.

Why do we collect bee venom?
Observations that bee keepers rarely developed or suffered from inflammatory disorders particularly the pain and debilitating effects of arthritis has been made for some time now. It was thought that repeated stinging from bees meant that there was something in their venom that was protecting bee keepers from developing inflammatory joints. On this basis, much research was conducted for which there is some evidence but no clinical proof that it prevents arthritis. This was just one of a myriad of conditions being investigated but much was based on the initial research into allergy to bee stings which was often fatal in some individuals. Extraction of bee venom and study of its chemical constituents formed the backbone of treatment approaches to this day which relies on desensitizing susceptible individuals to bee venom so that their bodies do not respond in such a catastrophic way (anaphylaxis) which led to severe allergic reaction and death from bee stings. There is however, no scientific evidence to prove the clinical benefits of bee venom in any medical literature to date and therefore allergy (on the whole) remains one of the trickiest areas within medicine where a cure or remedy remains so elusive. Nevertheless the practice of apitherapy (so named after the Latin name for bees: Apis mellifera) arose as a result of potential benefits from animal stings. Bees are not the only species to products stings or venoms; snakes, scorpion, ants and wasps are all being investigated and researched for medicinal use.

Mechanism of action
There is no clinical evidence of bee venom’s anti-ageing effect but there is plenty of research  on it which has focussed on its effect in diseases such as cancer and arthritis. Studies of its use as a skincare treatment have been limited and there are no legitimate scientific studies of the purported benefits of bee venom either topically or intravenously (ie. by injection). Medical uses of bee venom (apitherapy) uses purified bee stings which is the only medically approved product (FDA/EMA approval with official NICE Guidelines in the UK issued with its administration). It is given intravenously and is only approved for desensitising people who are hypersensitive (allergic) to bee venom. In Eastern Europe and in many Asian countries (including Japan and China), bee venom is used in official medical treatments of a large variety of ailments for a considerable length of time.
Drug label for a typical IV dose
of bee venom
Bee venom contains a host of biologically active compounds including enzymes, proteins, peptides, amino acids, physiologically active amines, sugars, phospholipids and volatile compounds. Medical grade bee venom is purified whole extract (mixed with sterile saline solution, distilled water or certain oils) to make an injectable form. No quality control of the creams or injections have been conducted (except the pharmaceutically made ampoules) therefore it is very difficult to ascertain the exact dosage and components in these products. Tablet versions* have had the toxic component melittin removed from them but interestingly, it is this very ingredient that is thought to be the active ingredient in anti-ageing beauty creams. Melittin is a highly toxic compound, and along with other inflammatory mediators in venom (histamine and other biogenic amines), contributes to the pain, swelling and itching associated with bee stings. The basis of bee venom’s anti-ageing effect when applied topically, is that it is thought to trick the body into thinking it has been stung therefore initiating the inflammatory response. The healing and repair mode that is part of this process involves skin regeneration with increased production of collagen and elastin (key components that make skin look youthful).Bee venom also contains apimin (a potent neurotoxin) which increases cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is the body’s own (endogenous) anti-inflammatory agent which further enhances skin restoration.

*oral tablets taken internally have limited use since many of the biologically active subbstances will be deactivated by the potent stomach acid. Letting the tablets dissolve under the tongue may release small quantities of the active ingredients directly into the blood supply but no scientific studies have been conducted on this to determine the value of this mode of administration.

Note: Hymenoptera - order of insects that have the capacity to sting (includes ants, wasps and bees)

Ethical considerations and environmental cost
Bees are excellent pollinators and we can all do our bit to preserve their population by encouraging growth of plants that they like such as jasmine, honeysuckle and a range of flowering plants with bright, colourful blooms and foliage. Bees in their natural environment collect nectar from a wide area from many different plants/flowers. Each batch of honey that they make therefore has a different flavour each time it is collected because of this. Many people prefer this type of honey because it is more natural and supports local wildlife, it is more ethical than large scale manufacture from one plant species/tree orchard. The recent decline in bee population in the UK and other parts of Western Europe has had a devastating impact on the local wildlife and there continues to be much debate about the exact cause of their dwindling numbers (virus, excessive use of pesticides, climate change, increased urbanisation leading to loss of natural habitats such as meadows…. to name but a few). Collecting bee venom does eventually kill them (just not immediately) and whilst there is an argument for its medical use, I cannot see a single reason why bees should be exploited for the sake of beauty and vanity. It’s deplorable. Moreover, the long-term use, cumulative and side-effects of beauty creams with bee venom is not yet known and I personally, wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole given my predisposition to allergy. There are many other factors such as genetics, lifestyle and environment all associated with ageing, which is after all an inevitable process. Prices of these bee venom creams vary enormously which begs the question as to its quality and dosage at the very least. Exploitation of honey bees may also in the long-term modify their behaviour and result in unintended behavioural patterns which may destroy their innate ability to collect nectar and make honey, which we have enjoyed for centuries.

There is very little credible data and information on the cosmetic uses of bee venom and with good reason; it is a toxic protein. There are some great journal articles but almost all of them only focus on its medical uses. One of which can be accessed here: gives a good historical account and a useful scientific summary of bee venom and its products.

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