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Most claims of apitherapy have not been proved to the scientific standards of evidence-based medicine and are anecdotal in nature. A wide variety of conditions and diseases have been suggested by believers in the therapy as candidates for it, the most well-known being bee venom therapy for autoimmune diseases and multiple sclerosis.
The exact origins of apitherapy are difficult to pinpoint and can be traced back, in a general sense, to ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. Use of honey and other bee products can be traced back thousands of years and healing properties are included in many religious texts including the Veda, Bible, and Quran. These are mostly attributed to nutritional benefits of consumption of bee-products and not use of bee venom.
The more modern study of apitherapy, specifically bee venom, was initiated through the efforts of Austrian physician Phillip Terc in his published results "Report about a Peculiar Connection Between the Bee stings and Rheumatism" in 1888. More recent popularity can be drawn to Charles Mraz (1905–1999) a beekeeper from Vermont, United States over the past 60 years. (Also see Bodog Beck, M.D.)
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While apitherapy encompasses use or consumption of bee products, the term is most commonly associated with bee venom therapy and not the consumption of honey or other bee products.
The most abundant active component of the venom is melittin, which has many useful properties, including powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-viral actions. However, bee venom is a complex mix of a variety of peptides and proteins, some of which have strong neurotoxic and immunogenic effects.
There is no standardized practice for the administration of bee venom. Some purport that the location of the sting is important, with the sting acting as a sort of acupuncture in combination with the effects of the venom, while others report the location is not important. The number of stings also varies widely from a few to hundreds and they may be administered either by live bees or by injection. This treatment can cause pain, and even result in death if the subject has an allergy to bee venom, which can produce anaphylactic shock.
In a controlled study from Allegheny University of the Health Sciences in Philadelphia, bee venom was found to have no positive effects at any dosage in mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, the animal model for multiple sclerosis. Additionally many of the animals expressed worse symptoms than those in the placebo groups.
A Phase I study at Georgetown University Medical Center funded by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America (MSAA) was geared towards safety in administering bee venom treatments to humans with multiple sclerosis. According to the authors, the study indicated "there was little evidence to support the use of honeybee venom in the treatment of MS".
A study at University Medical Center Groningen involved supervised bee sting therapy (using live bees) administered to 26 patients over a period of 24 weeks, compared to a 24-week period with no treatment. They concluded: in this trial, treatment with bee venom in patients with relapsing multiple sclerosis did not reduce disease activity, disability, or fatigue and did not improve quality of life.