Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that sometimes can be difficult for victims and even doctors to initially diagnose. That's because the symptoms of Lyme — fatigue, fever, sweats, headaches, muscle, neck and joint pain and trouble sleeping — resemble those of numerous other diseases, including the flu. Another problem in diagnosing Lyme disease is that it's often transmitted from the bite of immature ticks that are so tiny and their bite so painless that many people don't even realize they've been bitten. Consequently, by the time symptoms appear victims may not associate those issues with a tick bite. A bull's-eye rash sometimes, though not always, appears in the area of a bite from a Lyme-infected tick.
Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics to treat Lyme, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. However, some people who have Lyme or who suspect they have the disease turn to an alternative form of treatment: apitherapy.
What is apitherapy?
Apitherapy is the use of products from the hives of honeybees (Apis mellifera) as well as the bees themselves, including their venom, to treat Lyme and a variety of other conditions. Bee products used in apitherapy include raw honey, bee bread (a fermented mixture of bee saliva, plant pollen, and nectar that the worker bees use as food for the larvae and for young bees to produce royal jelly), pollen, propolis (a substance primarily composed of resins collected by the bees from trees and plants), royal jelly (a milky-white, gelatinous substance secreted by the salivary glands of worker bees to stimulate growth and development of queen bees) and beeswax, according to Frederique Keller, president of the American Apitherapy Society (AAS).
The not-for-profit group's mission, as described on its website, is to educate the public and health care community about the traditional and scientifically valid uses of apitherapy in promoting healing by improving circulation, decreasing inflammation and stimulating a healthy immune response.
A tick with its head sticking into human skin. The tell-tale sign of a bull's-eye rash appears as well. (Photo: Smileus/Shutterstock)
Diagnosis and treatment
An accurate diagnosis of Lyme is critical before using apitherapy to treat Lyme, said Keller, who lives on Long Island, New York, where she is an apitherapy practitioner, acupuncturist and beekeeper. Before a person seeks apitherapy, he should visit the doctor and ask the doctor to send a blood sample to a lab to confirm the patient has Lyme, Keller said. Information about testing for lyme is available from IGene-X, Inc., a research lab specializing in state-of-the art testing for Lyme and associated tick-borne diseases.
Practitioners of apitherapy usually mix bee products and/or bee venom in some combination with raw honey and apply them topically as a salve or a cream. The salve or cream can be applied to tick bites and other problem areas such as a cut, scrape, scratch, bug bite, psoriasis, eczema, toe fungus, or hemmorrhoids, Keller said. Apitherapy is also used to treat multiple sclerosis, shingles and other neurologic problems, musculoskeletal issues, such as many forms of arthritis, traumas, sprains and fractures and tumors, both benign and malignant. Bee venom eyedrops can be used for ophthalmic symptoms, Keller said.
Before undergoing bee venom therapy, a person should consult a qualified health care practitioner who is familiar with apitherapy to help them navigate through all the Lyme protocols and establish a specific strategy according to their particular symptoms, Keller advised. "For optimal results, it is best to address nutritional issues, including taking products of the hive and lifestyle changes at least one month prior to commencing bee venom therapy," she said. Treatment requires 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily in addition to the venom and can last from six months to more than two years, Keller added.
Techniques for treating Lyme or other ailments with live bee stings include whole stings, mini stings and micro stings into acupuncture points, Keller said, adding that people who opt for stings receive one test sting to determine their sensitivity. Less than one percent of the general public is allergic to honeybee venom, she said. There are a wide range of 'normal' reactions to a bee sting. These include but are not limited to redness, swelling and itching.
Traditional acupuncture methods can be adapted for apitherapy treatment of Lyme by dipping an acupuncture needle into a bee venom solution and administering the needle into the acupuncture points. This technique along, with micro stinging, is the most pain-free way to receive bee venom therapy, Keller said.
A patient testimonial
Deena Atlas of Northport, New York, has had both traditional and apitherapy treatments for Lyme and is a firm believer in the holistic approach of apitherapy.
"I was diagnosed with Lyme disease last summer in early August," Atlas said. "I took the strong antibiotics for the prescribed amount of time. I was told by my doctor that we had to take blood tests every three months. This is because it can come back. That made me very scared!"
Then she heard about apitherapy and Keller. "I met Frederique and we started the process of stinging with five-to-eight stings twice a week. I also took fresh raw honey, bee bread and propolis. After nine months, I have had three blood tests. Every one has shown that I am completely negative for Lyme!"
A ramekin of propolis, a substance primarily composed of resins collected by the bees from trees and plants. (Photo: Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock)
Apitherapy is as old as humankind
Bee therapy is hardly new. In fact, it's as old as humankind itself based on drawings that early hunter-gatherers left on cave walls depicting bees as a source of natural medicine. Records also show that ancient civilizations in Egypt, Greece and China used bee venom to treat arthritis and other joint pain.
Anyone considering bee venom therapy, however, should be aware that apitherapy is not sanctioned in the United States, although the Food and Drug Administration has approved bee venom for desensitization purposes. The AAS cautions on its website that apitherapy is considered experimental from both a medical and a legal viewpoint.
As a non-regulated practice, apitherapy falls under the purview of herbal medicine, dietary and nutritional supplement regulations, according to the AAS website. Some forms of apitherapy, the website points out, can be considered within the scope of practice laws for a variety of practitioners.
These practitioners include physicians, nurses, acupuncturists, naturopaths and laypersons such as beekeepers who are interested in apitherapy, according to the AAS website. Some beekeepers, for instance, can provide people with bees and show them how to treat themselves.
How to find an apitherapist
The AAS maintains a network of contacts involved with apitherapy who can offer emotional support to each other and share scientific and educational information about apitherapy. The network, however, is not meant to serve as a referral service to help people find practitioners, Keller emphasized. "That's because most apitherapists are not comfortable treating anyone but themselves and do not want their personal info shared," she said. Access is members-only, so you'll have to join the group to contact people in the network.
The AAS holds an annual conference during which it conducts basic and advanced courses in apitherapy featuring international speakers who are experts in apitherapy. The AAS also holds regional workshops throughout the year. Dates and locations are listed on the website.
"Conferences and workshops are open to everyone — lay persons, beekeepers and health professionals," Keller said. "People come to learn, deepen their apitherapy knowledge and to feel secure and supported in treating themselves, friends and family."
Keller said she does know some practitioners around the country who incorporate apitherapy, including bee venom therapy, in their work. These include: Dr. Patrick Fratellone, New York; Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, Warren, N.J.; Dr. L. Russell Canfield, Santa Fe, N.M.; Dr. Michael I. Gurevich, accepts patients from around the U.S. but located in Nassau County, New York; Dr. Andrew Kochan, Sherman Oaks and Santa Barbara, Calif.; Frank A. Yurasek, L.Ac, Oak Park, Il..
People looking for an apitherapist could also contact a beekeeping club or an acupuncturist in their area.
A sign in a park warns hikers about tick dangers. (Photos: photosthatrock/Shutterstock)
How to assess your risk factor
If you are concerned about contracting Lyme through a tick bite and want to assess your risk factor, lymedisease.org, a nonprofit organization that serves the patient community through advocacy, research and education, suggests checking a canine sentinel map. Canine maps for Lyme are more accurate than maps of human infections because only 10 percent of reportable Lyme cases are currently captured by CDC surveillance, according to the website, which points out that dogs are routinely screened for Lyme disease through a nationwide program.
Lyme is often incorrectly considered an East Coast disease. In fact, it is found throughout the United States, primarily carried by lone star ticks in the South, deer ticks in the East and Midwest and black-legged ticks on the West Coast.
If not caught early, Lyme disease can become chronic and may spread to any part of the body and affect any body system.
Defending against Lyme
Perhaps the best defense against contracting Lyme is to understand tick habitats and to act and dress defensively. Adult ticks climb grasses and bushes and wait for animals — or you — to pass by and brush up against them so they can cling to the animal's fur or your clothing. Nymphs and larvae, on the other hand, are typically found on the ground in layers of decomposing leaves underneath trees.
When outdoors hiking, camping, hunting or enjoying other activities, avoid tick habitats by staying on trails and dress defensively by wearing socks, long pants and long sleeves. It's also a good idea to tie back long hair and wear a hat and light-colored clothing, which helps in spotting ticks before they make you their next meal — or worse.
If you don't already have a tick protection plan for your pets, consult your vet. Animals can be infected with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases just like people can.
If you would like to read more about apitherapy, Keller suggests three books: "Health & The Honeybee" by Charles Mraz; "The Bible of Bee Venom Therapy" by Dr. Bodog Beck; and "Bee Venom, The Natural Curative for Arthritis & Rheumatism" by Dr. Joseph Broadman.
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