Apitherapy is painful, but seems to slow progression of Milverton woman's disease
August 17, 2002 Saturday
The Guelph Mercury
Norm Bell picks a tiny honey bee out of a small jar with a pair of tweezers and presses it against his arm.
The bee immediately plunges its stinger into his skin, embedding it in his forearm. Bell pulls the bee off and tosses it into a bucket of soapy water, killing it.
"That's it," says the Milverton man, a slight grimace of pain on his face. Even after four years of stinging himself at least twice a week, he's not used to the pain. "It hurts like hell," he says, laughing. "It's not a normal thing to do."
But normality doesn't concern Norm and his wife, Marie, who uses bee stings to treat her multiple sclerosis.
Norm administers the stings to areas on Marie's body and, although he is healthy, also takes a couple of stings each session to encourage his wife to stick with the treatment.
"It's easy to sit here and say, 'you do it.' I'll do everything she does, just not as much."
Four years ago, Marie, now 53, was in a wheelchair. She couldn't maintain her balance while standing and could barely hold a cup of tea.
Her bladder control was so poor she couldn't take even short trips into town.
"I was going down fast," said Marie, who has had MS for about 30 years.
So when they read an article about bee venom's benefit to multiple sclerosis and arthritis patients, the Bells set out to learn more about apitherapy, which explores the medicinal benefits of bee products.
Although the healing properties of bee venom have been widely studied in Europe, apitherapy is not recognized by any scientific institution in North America.
"I thought it would be a waste of a trip," said Norm, but after convincing Marie's doctor to prescribe a dose of adrenaline in case Marie had an allergic reaction to the venom, the couple jumped in the car and drove to Buckhorn, located about 30 minutes north of Peterborough.
There they met about 35 couples from across Ontario who were using bee venom to treat MS and arthritis.
"I was still not convinced," Norm said. "I figured Marie would come and say 'let's get the hell out of here,' but she didn't."
Instead, Marie took four bee stings. And the trips continued for six more weeks.
"I couldn't understand why people would keep doing something that hurt if it wasn't doing any good," said Norm. "It mystified me."
But setting their doubts aside, the Bells decided to learn more about the therapy so they could take the stings at home.
Today, Norm tends three beehives which house the tiny miracle workers that Marie credits for her improved health.
She has traded in her wheelchair for a walker and her strength has improved 100 per cent. Her bladder control lasts several hours.
Dr. Fred Mather, who has been Marie's family physician in Kitchener for 20 years, said although he can't endorse bee venom treatment, it seems to have significantly slowed the advance of her multiple sclerosis.
"It has not progressed as much as one would expect," he said.
He said MS causes overactivity in the immune system, and the venom probably counteracts the production of antibodies in the same way desensitization injections diminish allergies.
"There are proteins in the venom that probably affect the immune system and alter the progression of multiple sclerosis," Mather said.
There are not many treatment options for patients like Marie, who suffer from the chronic progressive form of the disease, and the Bells approached the alternative therapy with open minds.
"They weren't looking for a miracle cure, but some long-term benefits, which I think they've attained," Mather said.
Peter Kevan, an environmental technician at the University of Guelph, agreed there is evidence supporting the use of bee venom to treat MS and arthritis.
"I think there is a certain amount of truth to it," he said, but noted there is a tendency within the medical profession to disregard this sort of remedy.
"There is not a great deal of interest in funding that type of work," Kevan said.
And although U of G is not studying the effect of bee venom, Kevan does mention the medical use of hive products in a lecture to environmental biology students.
But Norm and Marie don't need a stamp of approval from medical professionals and continue to invite at least 20 of the buzzing insects in each week.
That is the number they figure it takes to control the debilitating symptoms of Marie's disease.
It's a breeze for Marie, who used to endure 25 to 30 bee stings every other day when the therapy began.
Norm said they slowly decreased the number of bee stings and increased the period of time between treatments for two reasons: to see how much venom Marie actually needs, and to prove the validity of the treatment to themselves.
"We've looked at it with a negative outlook," he said, "but it kept coming back that she was doing better."
They stopped the bee stings several times to see if they were fooling themselves.
"What we found is about five days is the max," Norm said. "Then she starts to get clumsy."
The couple administer stings at acupuncture points they locate by applying pressure to various parts of Marie's body.
Norm said a person who is ill will have many areas or trigger points that are painful to the touch.
Marie had hundreds of trigger points when she started the therapy, but they no longer need to sting her upper body. Now they focus mainly on her legs.
Swelling is also less of a problem, Norm said. While the site of a sting used to swell to the size of a tennis ball, it now resembles a small mosquito bite.
The couple incorporate bee products such as pollen and royal jelly into their diet. They eat large amounts of fresh vegetables and very limited amounts of red meat.
But even though Marie's condition has improved, the couple get mixed reactions from friends and family.
"Some think there's something to it and some think we're crazy," Norm said.
"All I care about is that Marie is feeling better. I can't prove anything,
but it seems to be working."
© Copyright 2002 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.