Acupuncture, a practice that involves pricking the skin with needles, is one of the oldest healing treatments in the world. With origins in ancient China, the alternative medicine has been shown to be effective in treating a range of ailments from migraines and back pain to anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder.
In recent decades, the needle-based practice of acupuncture has been embraced by doctors and celebrities alike, who tout its ability to mitigate pain and reduce stress. But while acupuncture, with the use of sterilized needles, is considered safe, spinoffs of it are not. One, which relies on the stingers of bees as the needle, can even be deadly. For a 55-year-old woman in Spain, it was.
According to an official report published in the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology, the woman died after having an allergic reaction to the bee sting. This “live bee acupuncture,” as it’s referred to, involves “applying the stinging bee directly to the relevant sites according to the specific disease.” In this case, the woman had reportedly been receiving the treatment for two years, both to manage stress and diminish her joint pain.
It’s unclear exactly why things went awry this time, but what is clear is that her allergy isn’t an anomaly. “In sensitized persons, venom compounds can act as allergens, causing the release of mast-cell mediators and a spectrum of allergic reactions that can range from mild, local swelling to severe systemic reactions, anaphylactic shock, or even death,” the authors write. “Furthermore, repeated exposure to the allergen was found to carry a greater risk of severe allergic reactions.”
Although it seems safe to assume that multiple exposures to a potential allergen with no response means an allergy isn’t present, the researchers stress that that isn’t always the case with bee stings. In this instance, it may have been the repeated exposures that made the woman more susceptible to a life-ending reaction.
The report goes into detail about the patient’s final days, saying that after she received a live bee sting, she began wheezing, experienced difficulty breathing, and then lost consciousness. An ambulance was called but took 30 minutes to arrive. By the time it did, the woman had suffered a massive stroke. A few weeks later, she died from organ failure.
The researchers caution people to take note that a lack of initial reaction does not mean that someone won’t develop one later on. “Previous tolerance to bee stings does not prevent hypersensitivity reaction,” they write.
Beyond revealing a tragic story, the report raises important questions about the practice itself. Namely, what is “live bee acupuncture” — and are people actually doing it?
Bee acupuncture is a form of “apitherapy,” a term that refers to the use of bee products — such as honey, pollen, and venom — for medicinal use. The products of bees have long been considered fountains of health, and indeed, some are. Honey has shown to be effective in successfully fighting off a number of infections, including E. coli, as well as healing stubborn wounds. Bee pollen has proved to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent.
But it’s one thing to mix extra raw honey in yogurt or try out a topical cream containing bee pollen. It’s an entirely different thing to submit to an intentional bee sting. Although research has shown that bee venom helps build immunity for future stings, there have been no studies showing any additional therapeutic effects of bee stings. In the absence of evidence that it does or does not work, many groups on the internet not only endorse but promote the practice.
One such group is the American Apitherapy Society Inc., which aims to “educate the public and health care community, about both the traditional and scientifically valid uses of Apitherapy.” On top of proven benefits like reducing inflammation, AAS lists a number of conditions that it claims bee products can treat, including multiple sclerosis, arthritis, pain, gout, shingles, and tendinitis. The pinnacle of this treatment, according to their website, is “bee sting therapy.”
AAS (and others) credit the practice to Bodog F. Beck, MD, a Hungarian-American physician who began using bee stings, according to his New York Times obituary, to treat arthritis in his own knees in the 1930s. The treatment first gained popularity in Europe and eventually made its way to the United States. Since then, a number of celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon, including Gwyneth Paltrow, who calls it “actually pretty incredible.”
The study’s researchers recommend that anyone undergoing apitherapy understand the risks associated with it and that practitioners be prepared with treatment for anaphylaxis. But considering that these conditions may not be met before treatment, they conclude that it should be avoided. “The risks of undergoing apitherapy may exceed the presumed benefits, leading us to conclude that this practice is both unsafe and unadvisable,” they write.
So although bee sting therapy may not be dangerous for those who do not have an allergy, the potential risks that come with it are too deadly to ignore. If you’re ever given the opportunity to choose between getting stung and not getting stung, stick with the latter.
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