It seems that humans have always been fascinated by bees and the honey they make.
“There’s honey that has been found in Egyptian tombs that is over 3,000 years old and the honey is still edible. Pure, raw honey never goes bad and has an infinite shelf life,” says Melanie Kirby of Zia Queenbees Farm and Field Institute in Truchas.
In addition to eating honey, ancient people used it and other bee products to heal.
“Apis mellifera is the Latin name for honeybees; apitherapy includes various health and wellness components that are derived from a honeybee hive,” says Kirby.
Rock art from the time of the early hunter-gatherers shows the honeybee as a source of medicine, according to the American Apitherapy Society. The use of bee venom as administered either with acupuncture-like needles or direct bee stings was practiced in ancient Egypt, Greece and China.
“Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the ‘Father of Medicine,’ recognized the healing virtues of bee venom for treating arthritis and other joint problems. Today, growing scientific evidence suggests that various bee products promote healing by improving circulation, decreasing inflammation, and stimulating a healthy immune response,” says the American Apitherapy Society website.
Healing with bees
Not only is the venom from the bee sting employed for healing, but other products made by bees, including honey, wax and pollen, are also used. Propolis, which is made by bees from the resin of trees and other plants, is used to cover the hive to prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria. Tinctures made with propolis are used to treat wounds, burns and sore throats. It has been shown to reduce plaque and gingivitis in the mouth and its active components have been documented as fighting inflammation and even cancer.
Scientific studies have begun to be conducted on the effectiveness of bee products in treating disease. Current studies have shown that venom can help regulate thyroid function in women with overactive thyroids. It also enhances the effectiveness of arthritis medication, reduces the swelling of joints due to fluids, speeds the healing of wounds and plays a role in quieting coughs.
A study done in 2009 by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts showed that melittin, one of the 40 healing components identified in bee venom, is both anti-inflammatory and antiarthritic. Bee venom is being used in shots to address rheumatoid arthritis, nerve pain and multiple sclerosis – and for reducing the reaction to bee stings in people who are allergic to them.
Apitherapy in Taos
Irena Lerman practices apitherapy in Taos. Originally from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Lerman traveled in Europe, Asia, northern Africa and Mexico before coming to Taos. She first came into contact with apitherapy when traveling in Siberia, Russia. She says that bee products were used by local beekeepers and there was a notable lack of illness, including arthritis, cancer and other chronic disease.
While in the Yucatán region of Mexico, she began training in the field of apitherapy. “The local doctors, despite their education in modern medicine, have the freedom to use healing methods that really work. When I saw the results again, I had no doubt that this is exactly what I wanted to pursue,” says Lerman.
She practiced apitherapy and taught meditation in Palm Beach, Florida, for several years. After visiting Taos with a friend, she knew that she wanted to move here.
Lerman says, “I knew this was the place where I could practice beekeeping, live in deeper connection with nature and be fully dedicated to apitherapy.”
While in Taos, she began to treat herself for the Lyme disease that she had contracted while living in Florida. Although she had been through a series of standard treatments with antibiotics, she was still experiencing physical pain, blackouts and other debilitating symptoms to the point that her heart began to fail.
Rather than pursuing Western approaches, such as a pacemaker, she dedicated herself to treatments with apitherapy and was healthy within six months.
Honey for health
In addition to treating illness, bee products can be used to maintain health. Lerman recommends taking a teaspoon of honey every morning during the winter. She says, “It is very healing – antibacterial and antiviral. It helps us feel more vitality and boosts the immune system.”
She uses local honey mixed with herbs, which are collected here in the Sangre de Cristos.
Lerman notes, “No herbs from other places have the efficacy of these local herbs due to the purity of environment and altitude.”
With treatment, Lerman has seen clients experience improved libido, sleep and appetite, plus an increased sense of well-being and even happiness.
Natural elements, like rose petals and rose hips, are gathered in the wild and added to bee products to make healing tinctures. Each season provides a different opportunity. Lerman uses the rose hips, which are full of vitamin C, to make an immune-boosting winter tea. Summing up all the nature elements she works with, Lerman says, “It’s like treasures here; these are the jewels.”
The first appointment with Lerman is a free health assessment that is used to identify the rest of the healing process needed. Overall treatment can take up to three months. Lerman begins the treatments with a very small amount of bee venom and observes the reaction.
About 3 percent of people who are stung by a bee each year have an allergic reaction. Lerman says in 800,000 treatments conducted, only about 1 percent of people have a reaction. In her five years of practicing apitherapy, Lerman has never seen an allergic reaction, but keeps an epinephrine injection (often referred to by the brand name EpiPen) nearby. She notes that the allergic reaction begins within 15 minutes, so it is important that the client stay with the therapist during that time. She says that the practitioner comes to be able to predict the likely reaction based on the body and health of the client. Most have a mild reaction, although there can be minor swelling and itching after the administration of the sting.
Although apitherapy has been practiced for thousands of years, it is controversial, perhaps because some people are allergic to bee stings or because many people fear bees. And as Lerman says, we don’t know everything. “The medical research demonstrates that apitoxin (bee venom) is a rich source of enzymes, amino acids, peptides, biogenic amines, proteins and neurotoxins. The exact chemical compound and effect mechanism of the venom, though, is not entirely understood.”
In spite of the controversy, she has seen dramatic results with her clients. One came in suffering from the symptoms of a deer tick bite, including muscle and joint pain and intolerance of certain foods. “The pain was debilitating for him,” says Lerman. “After six sessions, his symptoms were gone.”
Apitherapy is also used to treat emotional distress and inflammation in the hips and hands. It is often just one part of a holistic healing approach, which is usually accompanied by changes in diet and lifestyle.
With such changes, Lerman observes, “Non-modern medicine says that [the] body can heal itself.”
She says, “I love all animals, but honeybees are divine. They live from the most divine things – the nectar of flowers. Even just to be in their presence is healing.”
Lerman practices at her studio in Las Colonias and at an in-town location. For an appointment, call (575) 224-1626.