Full of venom

 

It's the time of year for trying to avoid being stung by bees or wasps, but some people get stung on purpose, reports Yvonne Gordon.

It's peak season for our stripy friends, as you may have noticed from the constant humming in the flower beds and the buzzing intruders that have appeared just as you have been tucking into a jam sandwich on the beach. In the summer wasp and bee colonies are at their biggest - wasp colonies can hold a few thousand and bee colonies can swell up to 80,000 - which means it's the busiest time of year for Ireland's 2,000 amateur beekeepers, who are preparing to harvest and sell their crop of honey. And even though many of us start to feel anxious about being stung, beekeepers are keen to point out the insects' medicinal benefits.

According to Philip McCabe, president of the Federation of Irish Beekeeping Associations, bee venom has been used to treat rheumatism and arthritis for many years, and people regularly ask him for the stings from honeybees. McCabe believes that bee venom can help people in the early stages of rheumatism or arthritis. "A bee sting on the hands will lubricate your fingers, lubricate the joints: it's one of the big benefits of it." But it's fatal for the bees who die after stinging.

Bee therapy, or apitherapy, is practised around the world. Bees have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years; at bee-therapy clinics in China patients have up to 50 stings a day, to treat a range of ailments. Advocates say the therapy can help treat many diseases, from allergies and asthma to cardiovascular problems, although none of the treatments has been scientifically proven.

The venom in a bee stings has three effects on a human: it paralyses the local nervous system, increases blood flow and destroys red blood cells. Scientists believe the venom has pharmaceutical or anti-inflammatory properties that can boost the immune system, although the full effects are unclear. Wasp stings are not known to have medicinal effects.

McCabe says you'll seldom find a beekeeper with rheumatism or arthritis, as they regularly get stung on the hands. Although he always wears a beekeeper's suit, McCabe says working without gloves makes it easier to perform tasks such as picking up the queen bee. "If I'm working in one of my hives and a bee stings me, the smell of the venom will draw others to the area, and they'll also attack.

If I get one sting I am liable to get three or four more," he says. "That's my carelessness. If I open and manage my bees properly I never get stung."

McCabe says a beekeeper will not administer bee stings, as about one in 50 people is allergic to them and could react very seriously: therapy must be done under medical supervision. He adds, however, that many people with family histories of rheumatism or arthritis take up beekeeping as a preventative measure.

As bee venom is thought to boost the immune system, it is also used to treat other degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis, in which the immune and nervous systems progressively deteriorate. Joe Lynch, an MS sufferer from Co Monaghan, is cautious of apitherapy. "I am a bit wary of miracle cures. I have had MS for over 20 years, and every few years some great cure comes along and stories are written about it, and then it just fades from consciousness and you hear no more about it," he says. Lynch has heard that bee venom can be injected, but he isn't keen to be stung on purpose. "It seems pretty drastic," he says, "but probably if you're in enough distress it would overcome your fear of stings."

For more information on beekeeping visit www.irishbeekeeping.ie

Here's the sting

How to avoid being stung: Bees and wasps usually sting when they think they or their homes are under attack. To avoid being stung, ignore a bee or wasp until it moves away. Waving your hands or trying to swat it might only aggravate it. Do not interfere with swarms, hives or nests.

What to do if you are stung: When a bee stings you it leaves the sting in your flesh. Use your nail or a knife to scrape it off and treat the area with antihistamine cream. Don't rub the skin: that only spreads the venom. People with an allergy to bee stings can carry a special treatment pack.