Everyone is buzzing about Netflix’s latest journey into the wellness space, (Un)Well, a short docuseries that comes on heels of this year’s The Goop Lab and follows in the footsteps of popular shows like What the Health. (Un)Well has attracted a bit of heat for featuring somewhat controversial products and topics, but the series owns the fact that it’s looking at new approaches to medicine that stray from the path of traditional methods and often lack sufficient research or clinical input to prove their efficacy. One particularly controversial episode dove into what’s commonly referred to as bee venom therapy.
Officially known as apitherapy, bee sting therapy is a holistic practice that uses bee venom to treat illnesses ranging from arthritis to Lyme disease. Beyond physical treatments, (Un)Well also shows that bee venom itself is used as an ingredient in facial masks and other topical products as well; advocates even float potential improvement in symptoms for those who live with multiple sclerosis (MS). And while the show’s directors definitely entice viewers to want to learn more about bee venom, they don’t necessarily cover all the side effects and risks you should know about.
You might be wondering: What’s the catch? Are there any drawbacks to exposing yourself to bee venom? And is there any validity to claims about these holistic treatments? We spoke to experts in the field to find out what they have to say about bee sting therapy and bee venom beauty products.
What is bee sting therapy?
“Bee venom is released through the stingers when bees feel threatened, and the venom has historically been used for several illnesses as it is believed to have various medicinal properties,” explains Sunitha D. Posina, M.D., a board-certified internist and locum hospitalist based in New York City.
Dr. Posina adds that bee venom in its simplest form does contain anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory compounds, including one known as melittin, which has 26 amino acids and contributes to about 50% of the venom’s dry weight. “It is believed to have positive and negative effects, depending on the dose being used,” she tells Good Housekeeping. It also contains other components including phospholipase A2, apamin and adolapim, all of which have been studied for potential anti-inflammatory effects and pro-inflammatory effects.
As portrayed on the documentary, bee sting therapy involves a practitioner placing a bee on a certain area of the body (more often than not an area that is painful for one reason or another). The bee proceeds to sting the patient’s skin, and rather than remove the bee’s stinger immediately, the practitioner may leave it in there for several seconds. But the most important thing to note is that practitioners are involved, says Amy Rothenberg, N.D., a naturopathic physician who heads up Naturopathic Health Care in Massachusetts.
“Some people are sensitive to bee stings [while] others have anaphylactic responses — so any kind of bee sting therapy, per se, should be done with guidance and care,” says Rothenberg, adding that she believes it may “help [treat] certain nervous system ailments like Parkinson’s disease, and ALS.”
Her main takeaway? It’s worthwhile to dig deeper and not dismiss bee venom therapy. “Apitoxin contains peptides and enzymes that have been shown to decrease inflammation,” says Rothenberg. “There are some studies that show anti-cancer effect and impact on immune system illnesses, [so] there is enough research to date to warrant broader studies to assess the efficacy of using bee venom therapy in the medical setting,” she explains.
How is bee venom used in beauty products?
As seen in the docuseries, bee venom is also painstakingly sourced for pricey beauty creams and treatments that target the anti-aging market. “In the cosmetic world, bee venom is believed to trick the skin into a stinging effect, resulting in increased blood flow to the skin and stimulating collagen synthesis,” Dr. Posina says. Manufacturers often use it in skincare products like serums, moisturizers and face masks that are designed to target wrinkles with the venom’s antimicrobial effects.
“It’s like having your picture taken with a soft focus lens,” Deborah Mitchell, founder of U.K.-based Heaven Skincare, says in the documentary when asked to explain her bee venom products’ effects.
Are there any proven benefits associated with bee sting therapy?
Although bee venom has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties, there isn’t one piece of singular evidence or sound collective data in regard to its clinical effectiveness. “There are a few small studies done on its benefits in terms of skin health, inflammatory conditions such as Rheumatoid arthritis,” Dr. Posina explains, but it’s not enough to say it is definitively a helpful holistic practice for treating medical conditions.
“A randomized control study done in China in 120 people showed that bee-venom acupuncture showed some symptomatic relief similar to Rheumatoid arthritis medications such as Methotrexate and Celecoxib,” she adds. “However, we do need larger studies, including randomized control trials, to know that its effects are substantial and to initiate these treatments.”
Those who turn to bee venom for topical beauty treatments, however, may actually be onto something. Experts say the venom could potentially manage aging effects on skin: “In skin, there is some evidence suggesting its antimicrobial and anti-wrinkle effects. One study showed increased collagen protein synthesis, stimulated skin cell turnover, and recovery of damaged cells,” Dr. Posina says. But many leading healthcare experts agree: There needs to be more scientific evidence to validate any benefits before consumers can feel comfortable about any claims.
Can bee sting therapy be dangerous?
There isn’t substantial scientific evidence about its benefits, yes, but Dr. Posina also adds that research also lacks in terms of its negative side effects. That said, “one of the most important risks to be aware of is the risk of a severe allergic reaction, such as anaphylactic shock, which can result in death if not treated immediately,” Dr. Posina warns.
Also, you’ll need to consider the bees. Honeybees in particular are extremely important and essential for our environment as they contribute to about 80% of the pollination of flowers, fruits, and vegetables — so experts stress that consumers need to consider the agricultural impact these treatments and products could have overtime. “For more than a decade now, it is noted that there is a significant reduction in the number of bee colonies. It is believed that it is due to aggressive farming methods, chemical and pesticide use, pollution, global warming and disease spread through a parasite,” Dr. Posina adds.
Sting therapy results in a long, slow death for honeybees specifically, as they leave their stingers behind, but nonlethal venom extraction for all kinds of bees is also invasive. “The modern techniques — light electric current administered via a glass pane — of obtaining bee venom have been less painful and nonlethal compared to the original methods. However, given that we still cause some discomfort in this process, we have to be more considerate about being cruelty-free and avoid causing any pain or harm to the bees,” Dr. Posina argues.
The bottom line: Don’t think of bee sting therapy as a cure-all approach to MS, Rheumatoid arthritis or Lyme disease — sadly, it is not yet. There is not enough credible research for most doctors to recommend it as a form of treatment. “[Bee venom] may serve a purpose if studied further for using it for anti-inflammatory benefits, especially if there are no significant side effects given that the traditional Rheumatoid arthritismedications come with their own set of side effect profiles,” Dr. Posina says. Plus, there may even be more ways to use bee venom for long-term treatment that could be unlocked on the horizon, Rothenberg adds. “There are some studies that show anti-cancer effect and impact on immune system illnesses, [so] there is enough research to date to warrant broader studies to assess the efficacy of using bee venom therapy in the medical setting,” she explains.