Bee stings and bee venom are an unlikely route to health, but according to one centre in Kenya, the results are stunning, relieving arthritis, slowing the effect of HIV/Aids, stimulating the immune system and delivering a claimed permanent cure for daily pain.
The earliest records of man keeping and harvesting from bees date back to ancient Egyptians, but traditionally the sole focus was on honey.
Now it seems that bee-keeping may be entering a new era as eyes turn to the potential for health cures from the sting too.
“Though it doesn’t cure the disease, we have had HIV patients improve by 80 per cent,” said Andrew Write of the Wild Remedies organisation that deals with bushman honey, referring to a study showing that nerve damage in 50 HIV patients improved by 83 per cent after bee therapy.
This comes at a time when HIV prevalence in Kenya has been fluctuating.
Two years ago, researchers said the prevalence was 5.1, but more recent statistics put the figure at seven per cent despite all the awareness programs and ways to fight the disease.
At the same time, according to Write, pharmaceutical drugs have reached certain limits, not to mention their high costs.
This is what led Write to do a course in bee therapy two years ago, switching from his 15 year expertise in producing honey, so as to see patients improve in “a cheap way”.
The early days of his new career nearly saw him give up on being a bee therapist, but the complexity of bees and of bee therapy, and the results he has seen, have given him the stamina to keep going.
“We had a guy come here with pain all over,” he recalled, “after stinging him with a bees for a month, in which the number of stings were gradually increased to 30 stings in a day, all of a sudden he came back no longer in pain.”
The therapy, known as Apitherapy, stings certain parts of the body, known as “acu-points” in acupuncture.
The stinging has been found to activate the adrenal glands, in turn producing cortisol which is one of the body’s main inflammatory agents and also part of the immune system, which helps the body fight disease.
At first, a patient is stung on the back, on a location right above the kidneys.
In the course of time, the legs and other parts of the body are stung after the patient becomes “used” to the painful sensation of the stinging, Write explains, while emphasising that one has to know the acu-points.
But it’s not all just a painful process. In addition to stinging from bees, the therapy also uses bee venom and raw, unprocessed honey from bees.
The nectar and pollen collected by bees has been found to have medicinal value.
To survive in nature, plants develop properties to give them resistance to attack by microbes.
Bees then add to these medicinal properties in the plant nectar by adding enzymes of their own to preserve and improve the medicinal quality, after extracting the nectar from plants.
This raw honey, which remains unheated, contains several enzymes and antibacterial substances, including hydrogen peroxide content added by the bee.
After a prolonged period, the peroxide compound makes it an ideal substance in the treatment of wounds and disorders caused by bacteria.
The honey also stimulates cell growth and is thus ideal for wounds that show no signs of healing.
In addition, bee propolis is also collected from the buds of certain trees by bees and used as a sealant in the construction of bee hives.
Write and his crew collect the propolis from bee hives.
It contains 50 per cent flavanoids, 30 per cent wax, 10 per cent essential oils, five per cent pollen containing amino acids and proteins and five per cent other substances including vitamins and sugars.
The bee centre uses the propolis as an antiviral on patients, citing the flavanoid as an anti-viral agent.
To extract the bee venom, which they also use, voltage is induced on a board roughly 30 centimetres by 20 centimetres which contains wires that conduct electricity.
When the board is switched on, the voltage provokes the bees to attack “their enemy” in the form of an electric wire.
“The bees get shocked, they try to sting the wires and the venom (they produce) drops on the surface of the board,” explains Write, “the other bees sense the smell (of the venom) which angers them making them produce more venom”.
Once the venom is produced and dries up, it is then scraped off the board and mixed with raw honey.
Therapeutically, the venom is believed to act as an analgesic thanks to a mix of peptides and protein compounds, which have a strong neurotoxin and immunogenic effect.
Moreover, the venom has also been found beneficial on the cardiovascular system, respiratory system and digestive system, according to Write.
According to the organisation’s handbook on the ‘bushman honey’ produced by the centre, bee venom mixed with honey has been sold for more than a decade , with 13 million jars used to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis.
A bottle (120 grams) of therapeutic honey can go for Sh500.
However, it is rarely found in supermarkets and major retail stores, with Write citing the challenges of margins added by brokers seeking to make huge profits from selling the honey.
“Some made profits of 120 per cent,” he said.
However, the therapeutic honey can only be found in Write’s own shop in Malindi.