According to proponents of bee sting therapy, bee venom contains compounds with anti-inflammatory effects. By reducing inflammation, these compounds are said to promote healing and alleviate pain. One of the bee-venom compounds found to possess anti-inflammatory properties is called melittin.
Honey bee venom has been used as a therapy for centuries in many different cultures. It is particularly popular today in China and Eastern Europe, chiefly for chronic inflammatory disease.
From medieval times, the bees were isolated by the beekeeper, before being applied to the affected areas and provoked into stinging the patient. It is reputed that the emperor Charlemagne regularly received such treatment.
Venom can be administered by injection or topically as a cream. Peptides in the venom, principally mellitin and the less romantically named peptide-401, inhibit the inflammatory response by a combination of actions. They stimulate the production of cortisol, as well as stabilising mast cells.
Studies have also suggested that mellitin may inhibit the expression of inflammatory genes that cause the painful tissue swelling in rheumatoid arthritis.
Recent research has shown that modifying mellitin can greatly improve the effectiveness of liposome-encapsulated target drugs commonly used in cancer treatment. A variety of modified mellitin proteins were tested to achieve a compound stable enough to be inserted into liposomal nanoparticles and then into living cells without altering or causing damage to them.
Various therapeutic agents were then attached to the protein, which acts as a transporter agent, allowing enhanced therapeutic effects by targeting specific cells, such as groups of tumour cells.
Modern extraction techniques involve passing a small electric current across a mesh frame placed in the brood chamber of the hive. This agitates the bees, causing them to sting the mesh, releasing the contents of the venom sac, which can then be collected. The technique does not harm the bees, although the hives remain in an agitated state for some days afterwards.
Zoologists in northern India have taught farmers how to use cheap local resources to construct hives and venom extraction equipment. It is hoped that the project can be extended to provide the rural poor with an important extra source of Income.