As agents of pollination, bees are integral helpers of our agriculture, contributing to the growth of 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of the world’s flowers. Yet at the same time, these black and yellow striped workers can also turn violently against us for the protection of their hives, with their venomous stingers ready to strike. But despite this mixed reputation, these diligent insects are more amicable to humans than we realise. In many ancient civilisations, bee products have been used as medical tools to treat wounds, cuts, burn and much more, eventually developing into its own branch of medicine called apitherapy. However, it was only until the 20th century that scientists started investigating the health benefits of honey, royal jelly, propolis, pollen and even stingers due to their potential to contribute great advancements to modern medicine today.
This golden liquid that sweetens our breakfast pancakes has been the primary medicinal tool for the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indian, Assyrians and Egyptians since 3000BC. They believed in its ability to heal wounds, relieve pain and cure baldness. Though its benefits may have been exaggerated in the past, there is sufficient evidence to support many of our ancestor’s medical observations.
For example, many of us know that honey can be used as a household remedy for colds and persistent cough. But have you ever wondered why it’s so effective, to the point where it rivals the cough suppressant ingredient dextromethorphan? The secret lies within its thick consistency. When swallowed, the honey coats the surface of the throat, triggering nerve endings that protect the throat from incessant coughing. Combined with its anti-inflammatory properties from a combination of nutrients, honey can help relieve the painful dryness at the back of your throat, and give you a good night sleep.
The presence of the antioxidant, methylglyoxal (MG), is another reason why honey is so well known as a therapeutic form of medication. If its MG value reaches 10 UMF (Unique Manuka Factor), the honey’s antibacterial and antifungal properties are potent enough to treat dandruff, reduce itchiness and redness of scalp, eliminate Clostridium difficile bacteriathat causes severe diarrhoea, and boost the production of special cells that aid tissue repair. With its antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, honey can also improve short term memory, ease inflammation and pain, and has the ability to combat MRSA infections. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is caused by a type of staph bacteria that's become resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections.
Although honey is a great health option for adults, it is a dangerous health hazard for children under 12 months. This is because some jars of honey may contain the bacteria Clostridium botulinum which causes infant botulism in young children. Adult also have to be cautious when consuming raw honey as it contains several foreign particles such as pollen, bee wings, propolis and honeycomb bits, which can cause food poisoning or an anaphylactic shock (if you’re allergic to bees). Be aware that the benefits of honey is liable to change as the nutritional contents of the honey largely depends on the type of honey and the plants surrounding the hive.
This acidic fluid dubbed as ‘bee milk’ is a specially reserved meal for future queen bees – and a royally healthy treat for humans. Known for its high antioxidant levels, royal jelly has been used in several beauty products. When applied unto the skin, the royal jelly’s antioxidants tighten up pores and gets rid of free radicals on its surface, giving the skin a more rejuvenating, youthful appearance while getting rid of scars and those tired panda eyes. Because of this ability, royal jelly can also treat skin conditions such as eczema, candida and acne.
Royal jelly has also been proven to be a successful medical treatment to several mental illnesses as it is the only natural source of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates memory and transmits messages between cells. Because of this, royal jelly has the ability to protect the fatty acids in the brain from free radicals and the chemical imbalances within our cranium which lead to anxiety and stress. Royal jelly also has the potential to improve the cognitive function of Alzheimer patients as well.
Unfortunately, royal jelly isn’t a health option for many people, including those who are asthmatic, allergic to bees, or pregnant, for fear of allergic reactions and lack of research. Those on blood pressure medication are also discouraged from taking the jelly as it can severely reduce one’s blood pressure.
Propolis is an integral part of the bee’s defence system. By acting as the hive’s ‘cement’, propolis guards the bees within against harsh weather as well as infestations of disease and parasites. Hence, it’s no surprise to find out that this resin-like substance contains around 300 compounds, most of which are polyphenols and flavonoids. Two polyphenols in particular, caffeic acid phenethyl esters and artephili C, have the ability to kill off tumour cells by inhibiting its DNA synthesis, inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) or through necrosis (interruption of the cell’s blood supply), leaving the healthy cells unscathed. By preventing the growth of cancer cells and blocking communication between them, propolis presents itself as a viable cancer treatment with lesser side effect compared to other cancer treatments.
Propolis is also very effective in healing wounds and traumatic burns thanks to the presence of a special antifungal and antimicrobial flavonoid called pinocembrin. Because of its presence, propolis can accelerate cell growth and may even be more effective then steroid cream, which reduces mast cells in oral surgery wounds. Its anti-inflammatory properties also enables it to reduce pain and inflammation after mouth surgery and traumatic teeth injuries as well as reduce the symptoms of cold sores and genital herpes.
Despite its great potential as a cancer and recovery treatment, there is not enough evidence showing that propolis is actually safe for consumption. However, the risks aren’t great as the small amount of propolis present in honey has not caused serious side effects. But there is evidence that repeated exposure to propolis may cause people to develop an eczema-like allergy towards it as well.
These balls of pollen mixed with nectar, enzymes, honey, wax and bee secretions, have become quite popular bee products due to its reputation as a highly nutritious supplement. Containing at least 250 active substances, including several antioxidants such as flavonoids, carotenoid and quercetin, bee pollen has the ability to protect the body from free radicals. Hence this ‘bee bread’ can reduce chronic inflammation, eliminate harmful bacteria, combat tumours and help chronic diseases such as type two diabetes. However, the potency of the antioxidants is highly dependant on the plant source of the pollen.
Bee pollen is also known to enhance the detoxifying abilities of the liver and boosts the liver’s defences, which safeguard the liver against damage from several toxic substances, including drug overdoses. This may also explain bee pollen’s overall ability to increase the body’s utilisation of nutrients. One study shows that after being feed bee pollen, iron deficient rats absorbed 66 percent more iron due to the presence of vitamin C and bioflavonoids in bee pollen boosting iron absorption. What’s more, the presence of Lecithin in bee pollen has granted it the ability to suppress cravings, hence bee pollen is believed to be able to decrease one’s appetite. It is also associated with the dissolution of fatty acids which lead to weight loss.
Although relatively safe, those taking blood thinners like warfarin should not consume bee pollen as the two interact negatively with one another. Tainted bee pollen is also dangerous, as it causes fatal side effects such as increased heart rate, cardiac arrest and even death.
Who knew that the painful stinger that pumps venom could be used as a form of medical treatment? Existing for over 5000 years, there has been people willing to be purposely stung by bees or injected with bee venom due to its proclaimed ability to treat inflammation, gout, rheumatoids arthrithis and much more. Although most of the health claims of this alternative therapy has been proven false or under researched, bee venom does contain nanoparticles that carry a toxin called melittin capable of destroying immunodeficiency viruses like HIV. By fusing with the HIV’s viral envelope, melittin creates ruptured pores in its defensive shield and strips it off the viruses, leaving it vulnerable to white blood cells and healthy cells.
Bee venom has also been dubbed as a temporary natural botox or ‘Beetox’ due its ability to smoothen wrinkles and give the skin a more plump, youthful complexion. When the bee venom touches the skin, the body is tricked into thinking it has been stung. Hence, it will increase blood circulation as well as stimulate collagen and elastin production, which will give the skin a plump, tightened and firm appearance. Bee venom has been used in many cosmetic products such as creams, masks and lip serums. Other confirmed benefits of bee sting include its ability to reduce pain and inflammation as well as its ability to reduce bee allergy symptoms.
Due to the lack of research in this area and the high risks it possesses, many doctors have discouraged patients from undergoing apitoxin. This is especially dangerous for people who don’t know they’re severely allergic, as they may experience anaphylactic shock. There is also evidence stating that it may even be toxic for the liver. Surprisingly, pregnant and breastfeeding women can undergo this therapy so long as it is under controlled conditions. But as always, it is best to consult your doctor before undergoing this, or any form of treatment.