Monday, May 12, 2003
By Steve Schmadeke
Bonita Daily News
There was a time in Tami Smith's life when she didn't invite people over to sting her and her husband with honeybees.
But that was before the Naples resident and her spouse Jack were diagnosed with Lyme disease, before the days when the accompanying fatigue and joint pain became so severe she had trouble getting out of the bathtub.
"You feel like you're 70 years old," said Smith, who worked as a nurse before contracting the disease. "You feel like you have a hangover every day."
The couple recently joined the thousands of people across the country who view bee venom as an effective treatment for ailments ranging from tennis elbow to arthritis to multiple sclerosis. Patients are stung with as many as 30 bees a session.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Jack Smith straddles a piano bench and removes his shirt as apitherapist Amber Rose lays out the tools of her trade. A half dozen pairs of tweezers, an epinephrine injector (used in case patients go into anaphylactic shock), two spray bottles containing water and an empty plastic bath salts container buzzing with honeybees.
"Do you have any pain today?" Rose asks.
"No, I'm feeling fatigue, the fatigue is really bothering me today," replies Smith, who, as an amateur beekeeper, is supplying the bees.
"Well, my gut tells me we should do an adrenal splurge," Rose says, picking up some acupuncture needles that she will insert before stinging Smith.
Since she started practicing what she calls bee acupuncture therapy a decade ago, Rose estimates that she has done more than 40,000 treatments. A short 56-year-old who favors silk robes and shiny gold slippers, Rose is the ultimate proselytizer for bee venom.
"It's really a mission for me," she says. "But it's not about me, it's about the honeybees. What the bee stings do is wake up the body's inner physician."
"It may not be approved by the F-D-A," she continues, adapting the cadence of a preacher, "but it is approved by the G-O-D and that's good enough for me. We're all Dorothys and Totos, just trying to find our way home again. Our ruby red slippers are the bees; they help us to find our way home."
The medical profession in general and national groups like The National Multiple Sclerosis Society in particular take a dim view of bee venom therapy. The National MS Society has gone so far as to issue a white paper that says "there are no well-documented benefits" of using it.
However, University of Florida pharmacy professor Dr. Paul Doering says components of bee venom do have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains melittin, which has 100 times the potency of hydrocortisone, he said.
"I think you would agree that this a strange way to deliver medicine," he said. "But we (the medical profession) are the ultimate snobs when it comes to that type of thing."
Dr. Doering agrees that research is lacking on the effectiveness of bee sting treatments and whether any benefits might be due to the bee venom itself or the acupuncture effect of the sting.
But he also has concerns about whether long-term bee venom therapy would diminish the body's immune system enough to make it more vulnerable to other sicknesses. And he said that using bee venom for maladies such as Lyme disease is pushing the treatment outside the range of medical possibility.
"I'm open-minded, but not open so much that my brain is going to fall out," he said.
Those who practice apitherapy —- a type of alternative medicine that uses a variety of bee products for health reasons —- come to it in different ways.
Unlike Rose, who read about it in a newspaper article, Cindy Florit, a Punta Gorda apitherapist, discovered it on her own.
"I was stung accidentally one day and I noticed that I wasn't feeling pain anymore," she said. "Then I came across a book in the library called 'Bees Don't Get Arthritis' and it just clicked."
Like Rose, Florit does not charge patients for bee venom therapy itself but for health counseling and advice. Rose teaches people how to administer the bee stings themselves.
"Everything in the bee hive has a medicinal property to it," Florit says. "Unfortunately, it hasn't really caught on in this country."
Florit gets her bees from Earl Russell, past president of the state beekeeper's association, who runs a honey and pollination business.
"I don't think a hell of a lot of beekeepers know about it," he says of bee venom therapy. "But there's a high percentage of people who say these treatments work."
Bee sting therapy is fatal to the honeybees. The stinger is attached to the female bees' intestines and the bee dies within a half an hour or so after they have stung a patient.
"I don't feel happy about the fact that bees die," says Rose, who places the spent bees in an empty cream cheese container after they sting patients. "I always thank the bee. It's a very sacred act."
Of course the therapy is rather painful for patients, at least at first. Tami Smith describes the feeling as an acid burn, similar to the pain of a fire ant bite. Two days after getting bee stings on her lower back and left knee, she has large red spots at the sting spots and her left ankle is swollen.
Amber Rose collects the bees in empty plastic jars with a bit of honeycomb inside, along with some water and part of the cardboard core of a bathroom tissue roll. The bees normally become docile after sating themselves on the honey. If not, Rose will spray them with a bit of water before lifting them out with a pair of tweezers.
"You ready, Jack?" she asks, holding a bee an inch away from Smith's back on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
"Yep," he replies.
"Hmmm, this one might be a dud," she says, while rubbing the end of the bee against Smith's exposed back. "Oh, there we go."
Once the stinger, which looks like a small sliver, is embedded in Smith's skin, a tiny sac at the top pulsates, injecting about 90 percent of its venom within 20 seconds.
Rose stings people at acupuncture points with mystical names like "The Gate of Life" and "The Mother That Never Dies."
For the Smiths, who have not found antibiotics to be as effective in combating the symptoms of Lyme disease, bee sting therapy seems a godsend.
"When you finally have a good day, it feels like you're high on drugs," says Jack Smith, who runs his own window blind business. "You're high on life."
"These types of treatments are really helpful for people like us," his wife says. "You could go into a pain clinic and they'd probably give you some Oxycontin, but if I do that I might as well quit."
Says Rose, "If I could wave a magic wand there'd be a beehive on every
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