The truly sweet success of the bee business
The Irish Times
Health Supplement, p. 13
24 June 2008
DOES IT WORK? Bee products and health
Bees have long been valued as a source of nutritious and tasty food products. A number of bee products have also been used as medicinal agents. Apitherapy is the name given to the use of any bee product for medicinal purposes. The most popular of these are honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis and bee venom. Each of the products is used differently and for different purposes. They should not be confused with one another or used interchangeably. Some of these products are now being marketed as dietary supplements.
Evidence from studies
The best known bee product is honey. In additional to being a natural source of sweetness and energy, honey has been used to suppress coughs. A recent study found that 1-2 teaspoonfuls of honey at bedtime were as effective as some over-the-counter cough syrups in treating night-time coughs and improving sleep in children. The specific taste, aroma and colour of honey depend on the specific plants from which the bees collect nectar. Interest is growing in the therapeutic potential of honey made by bees nourished on medicinal herbs. For example, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy were given a specific type of honey made in Israel. Such patients often develop low blood cell counts, which occurred less often in those given the special honey. A preliminary study has supported this finding, although further controlled studies are needed.
Honey may be beneficial because of antioxidants it contains. Another bee product with very strong antioxidant properties is bee pollen. This contains mostly flower pollen and nectar brushed from worker bees as they re-enter their hives. Bee pollen is marketed as ‘the perfect food’ containing vitamins, minerals and enzymes, though its precise composition varies depending on the flowers visited by the bees. Bee pollen is said to help with several conditions, but no studies support these uses.
Royal jelly is a milky substance used to feed the developing queen bee. It contains many nutrients and vitamins, and has been recommended for many different conditions. The only benefit supported by some research is in reducing high cholesterol levels. Royal jelly may therefore be beneficial as part of a heart-healthy diet, although further studies are needed.
Another product is bee glue, or propolis. Bees use this to repair holes in their hives and to make their walls smooth. Propolis has a long history of use dating back to ancient Greece and Egypt. It was primarily used to aid gastrointestinal problems and to treat infections. No evidence supports its oral use, although when applied in ointments, some benefits have been found with viral infections (like herpes) and chronic skin conditions.
Bee venom therapy uses the stings of bees to treat various conditions. It is said to be particularly popular in Romania, China, and Russia. Both bee stings themselves and purified bee venom products are used. The approach can be used, like vaccination, to desensitize people with a severe allergy to bee stings. Used this way, it has been found to be effective when administered by appropriately trained professionals. Others use the stings or injections to treat conditions like multiple sclerosis, arthritis and inflammatory conditions. Such uses are not supported by evidence from clinical studies.
All bee products have led to allergic reactions, which can range from mild irritation to fatal anaphylaxis. People with an allergy to one of the products should be cautious using any of the others. Allergies can depend on the plants visited by the bees and can therefore vary between products and batches. Because all bee products can contain sugar, diabetic patients should be careful with them. Royal jelly has been found to be particularly problematic for diabetics. Honey can be contaminated with Clostridium botulinum spores which pose a risk to infants and very young children, but not older children and adults.
Bees are very important to the environment. They also provide very nutritious food products. In a few cases, bee products may have specific therapeutic properties. For the most part, however, the reputations far exceed the evidence from research. At the moment, their nutritious value is beyond question. Whether they will become a sweet medicine remains to be seen.