European honeybees (Apis mellifera) are a source of invaluable medicinal substances, including honey, propolis and venom, which humans have used medicinally for millennia.1
The searing pain that accompanies a bee sting is due to bee venom excreted from the bee’s stinger and into the target, such as your finger. While bee venom contains a complex mixture of proteins, enzymes and polypeptides, along with amino acids, catecholamines, sugars and minerals, it’s melittin — which makes up half of honeybee venom by dry weight2 — that’s responsible for the pain.3
This amino acid peptide, along with the bee venom it’s contained in, has previously been shown to have powerful antitumor and anticancer properties, including against the following types of cancer:4
Non-small-cell lung cancer
Little is known, however, about the molecular mechanisms behind bee venom’s anticancer effects, leading researchers with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research in Australia to investigate, particularly in relation to triple-negative and HER2-enriched breast cancer subtypes, which are aggressive with limited treatment options and associated with some of the poorest outcomes among cancer cases.5
Honeybee Venom Kills Aggressive Breast Cancer Cells
Researchers used venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees in Perth Western Australia, Ireland and England for the study, testing it on normal breast cells and cells from clinical subtypes of breast cancer.6
The honeybee venom turned out to be “extremely potent,” with certain concentrations inducing 100% cancer cell death with only a minimal effect on normal cells. What’s more, melittin was so powerful that it was capable of completely destroying cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes, according to researcher Ciara Duffy. She said in a news release:7
“No-one had previously compared the effects of honeybee venom or melittin across all of the different subtypes of breast cancer and normal cells. We tested honeybee venom on normal breast cells, and cells from the clinical subtypes of breast cancer: hormone receptor positive, HER2-enriched, and triple-negative breast cancer.
We tested a very small, positively charged peptide in honeybee venom called melittin, which we could reproduce synthetically, and found that the synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom. We found both honeybee venom and melittin significantly, selectively and rapidly reduced the viability of triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer cells.”
Bumblebee venom, which doesn’t contain melittin, did not induce cell death, even at the highest concentrations.
Melittin Interferes With Cancer Signaling Pathways
Looking further into how melittin acts as an anticancer agent, the researchers investigated its role on cancer signaling pathways, which are crucial for cancer cells to grow and reproduce. Melittin quickly interfered with the signaling pathways, essentially reducing cell replication. Duffy explained:8
“Melittin modulated the signaling in breast cancer cells by suppressing the activation of the receptor that is commonly overexpressed in triple-negative breast cancer, the epidermal growth factor receptor, and it suppressed the activation of HER2 which is over-expressed in HER2-enriched breast cancer.”
Melittin also causes pores, or holes, to form in breast cancer cells, leading the researchers to suggest it could be used along chemotherapy agents to enhance their entry into cancer cells.
A combination of melittin and the chemotherapy drug docetaxel reduced tumor growth in a study on mice, and the researchers suggested it could potentially be used to treat additional aggressive cancers beyond breast cancer, including lung, glioblastoma, colorectal, gastric, ovarian, endometrial, bladder and head and neck cancers.9,10
While future studies will be needed to determine the best method for delivery and maximum tolerated doses, as well as to further assess for any potential toxicities, the researchers suggested that honeybee venom offers a cost-effective, widely available and easily accessible treatment option that could be used worldwide, including in remote or less-developed regions.11
Honeybee Venom Has Multiple Medicinal Uses
Beyond anticancer properties, components of honeybee venom have been used since ancient times for human health and well-being. As noted in the journal Toxins:
“Therapeutic usage of BV [bee venom] dates back to Ancient Egypt (4000 BC), and was later applied by Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, during the Greek and Roman historical periods. In Traditional Chinese Medicine and other historical practices, BV was introduced for inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid, arthritis, tendonitis, fibrosis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.”12
Honeybee venom also has anticoagulation factors and is known to increase blood-clotting time, while bee venom acupuncture has been used to control chemotherapy-induced neuropathy.14
Apamin, another peptide in bee venom, also has potential medicinal properties and has been explored as a treatment against Parkinson’s disease, learning deficit disorder and diseases that include high muscle excitability, since it’s known to reduce neuromuscular transmission.15
What’s more, bee venom has a range of known biological and pharmacological activities, such as being radioprotective, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral. Ironically, though bee stings are painful, the venom also has pain-relieving effects, along with immune modulatory activity and anti-rheumatoid arthritis effects.16
Further, because both bee venom and melittin are strong anti-inflammatories, they’ve been investigated for treating inflammatory skin conditions like atopic dermatitis, with one study suggesting it could make a useful topical treatment for atopic dermatitis, even decreasing associated skin lesions17 or helping to encourage skin regeneration.18
Bee venom also has antimicrobial activity and may be useful against drug-resistant bacteria, viruses, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV),19 and fungi.20
According to a review in Toxins, it could even provide a resource for combating the epidemic of drug-resistant disease: “BV and its constituents in combination with antibiotic drugs emerge as a plausible approach to overcome drug resistance of current antibiotics treatment in a controlled manner.”21
Apitherapy Is an Emerging Field
Apitherapy, which comes from the Latin word “apis,” or bees, is bee therapy that involves products from honeybees, such as bee venom, honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis and beeswax.22
Live bee acupuncture therapy, in which live bees are used to give bee stings intended to provoke an anti-inflammatory immune response, has received negative attention due to the potential for allergic reaction, and at least one death was reported in a woman who was previously tolerant of bee stings.23,24
However, the many forms of apitherapy are receiving renewed attention for their potential to benefit a wide range of human health conditions. For instance:
• Honey — Honey, a complex mixture of sugars, amino acids, phenolics and other compounds, has been valued for its medicinal properties since ancient times. Made from flower nectar and produced by bees, honey’s medicinal properties vary depending on what type of flowering plant it came from.
One of the most heavily researched and renowned is Manuka honey, which is valued for its antibacterial properties and produced from certain Manuka plants — also known as tea trees — of the Leptospermum species, which are native to New Zealand and Australia.25
• Propolis — Bees make sticky propolis from tree resin and use it to line the hive as a natural immune system, protecting the insects inside from outside germs. Propolis contains over 300 natural and powerful compounds26 with antiseptic, antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral and detoxifying properties, and is sometimes referred to as “Russian penicillin.”27 The American Apitherapy Society noted:28
“Propolis contains flavonoid compounds known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity as well as tissue strengthening and regenerative effects. A 1994 Polish study found that mice given propolis lived longer than the mice in the control group.”
• Bee Pollen — Bee pollen, which is bees’ primary source of dietary protein, is packed with vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B and more protein per gram than any animal product. In essence it is an all-natural, food-based, bioavailable nutrient boost.29
Bee pollen has anti-inflammatory, anticancer and anti-arthritic properties, while also containing immune-system normalizing phytochemicals, which may help decrease allergy symptoms in those with pollen sensitivities.30
• Royal Jelly — Royal jelly is the superfood of the hive. This is the substance the hive uses to create the queen bee. Within the first three days of development, all larvae are fed royal jelly. Then only one larvae, destined to become the queen, will exclusively eat royal jelly.
Royal jelly is unique in that it contains proteins, sugars, fats and amino acids along with the compound acetylcholine, which gives it nootropic effects.31 Nootropics are substances that may improve cognitive function, specifically executive function such as memory, creativity or motivation.
According to a review in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, “Royal jelly is well known for its protective effects on reproductive health, neurodegenerative disorders, wound healing, and aging.”32
Beeswax, made up of at least 284 different compounds, is another versatile and widely used bee product.33 While bees use beeswax to cap off honey, protect against infections and seal cracks in the hive, humans value beeswax for everything from candles to skin care.
Protecting Bees Is Essential
Considering that bees provide humans with unique health-enhancing products unavailable anywhere else in nature, and act as essential pollinators essential to the growth of at least 30% of the world’s food crops,34 protecting bees in the environment is of utmost importance.
Unfortunately, bees are being threatened by exposure to pesticides and other environmental threats. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire, for instance, warn there’s been a “dramatic decline” of 14 wild bee species needed for pollination of apples, blueberries, cranberries and other crops grown in the Northwest.35
To avoid harming bees and other helpful pollinators that visit your garden, swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for non-chemical weed and pest control alternatives. Better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant an edible organic garden.
Both flower and vegetable gardens provide good honeybee habitats. It’s also recommended to keep a small basin of fresh water in your garden or backyard, as bees do get thirsty.