‘Bee Lady’ finds special therapy in venom

Friday, Aug. 22, 2008

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Staff photo by GARY SMITH
Pat Wagner holds a bee, which she will allow to sting her. Wagner says the bee venom helps relieve pain from autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

Pat Wagner even eats her peas with honey.

That’s how much she believes in the healing power of bees — especially their stings.

That’s right — a honeybee’s ‘‘venomous” sting might hurt for a minute, but unless one’s allergic it’s not harmful at all. In fact, honeybee venom, also known as apitherapy, could prevent years of suffering for those with multiple sclerosis, arthritis or other debilitating nerve or autoimmune diseases, some local apitherapists say.

But medical experts say there’s no scientific evidence to back up the efficacy of bee sting therapy — only anecdotal claims. Studies on apitherapy’s effects on diseases like multiple sclerosis are hard to conduct because of the disease’s penchant to operate in ups and downs anyway. Apitherapy’s positive effects on MS could also be based on human nature’s inclination to associate two events with cause and effect — possibly even the result of the ‘‘placebo effect,” in which the mind tricks itself into believing a substance that actually has no therapeutic activity for a condition is curing it, according to a number of online discussions of bee sting therapy.

Wagner was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 38 years ago and coped with it fairly well until stress from her father’s death in 1990 sent her health on a downward spiral. At that point, Wagner couldn’t see, hear or walk and her doctor said he couldn’t help her. The MS steroids treatments were harsh and made Wagner feel worse.

‘‘I went home and cried. I just knew I was going to die,” the longtime Waldorf resident said. ‘‘My mother knew a friend, a beekeeper and he wanted to know if I wanted a bee sting. He came over, and I was pale and numb. He didn’t know where to sting me.”

Bee venom therapy is a centuries-old treatment for chronic aches and pains, known to heal arthritic pains and almost totally relieve MS symptoms, Wagner said, because of its all-natural components that affect the nervous system.

The honeybee is placed on certain nerves and the stinger is left in for about 20 minutes as it pulsates and releases its venom supply, which has anti-inflammatory power 100 times stronger than steroids, Wagner said. But unlike acupuncture, honey bee venom reduces pain for days, weeks or even months.

Charles Mraz, a world-renowned beekeeper who died in 1999, and who Wagner knew personally, was the first to sting for MS, Wagner said. As a pioneer of bee venom therapy to treat autoimmune diseases beginning in the 1930s, he later established the standard for purity for dried whole venom for the Food and Drug Administration and was a supplier of venom to pharmaceutical companies throughout the world. In 1998, Mraz became a founding member and executive director of the American Apitherapy Society.

Few studies have been done on bee venom therapy. In fact, the Maryland State Medical Society said it did not have a particular opinion or study to back up the efficacy of bee venom therapy.

A small, year-long study on the safety and tolerance of bee venom therapy by people with MS began in 2003 at Georgetown University Medical Center under the direction of Joseph A. Bellanti. Nine people with progressive MS received a series of injections of gradually increasing strength to determine its safety. Participants were evaluated monthly. Four of the nine patients improved, Bellanti said.

‘‘Since the course of MS is characterized by waves of improvement and exacerbation, it was a very difficult study. The numbers were too small to draw any sweeping conclusions. I would not recommend a patient with MS be stung with bees because you don’t know how much bee venom they’re injected with and it could be dangerous [if allergic]. The procedure of stinging patients with bees is empiric, isn’t controlled scientifically, and is not a procedure I would recommend,” he said.

A 2005 study by the department of neurology at the University Medical Center of Groningen in the Netherlands found that bee sting therapy made no improvement of disability, fatigue and quality of life, though it was well-tolerated with no serious adverse effects.

A 1998 study by the Allegheny University of Health Sciences in Philadelphia using a grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society found bee venom had no beneficial effects on mice with an MS-like disease called experimental allergic encephalomyelitis. In fact, some of the mice treated with bee venom experienced a worse course of EAE than those that received inactive placebo, but the numbers of mice in this pilot study were too small to draw definitive conclusions.

‘‘Some doctors dismiss it,” said Harry Dalton, a Hollywood, Md., bee keeper who also administers stings to those who request them. ‘‘[When] the great medical society says it’s good then [doctors] will start doing it.”

Dalton said he learned the therapy from his father, who began stinging oystermen decades ago, and has believed in it all his life — so much so he began making other honeybee-related products, such as a wrinkle cream. In all of the people he’s treated, it’s been ineffective for only one of them.

‘‘Everybody is different,” Dalton said. ‘‘When people get hurtin’ real bad, they talk to their friends. Yes, bee venom works but it works better if you pair it with the nutrients necessary. It doesn’t always end up rosy but for most people it works so good it’s not even funny.”

The bee venom treatments work best for newly diagnosed people who’ve had little exposure to harsh medicines, the Wagners claim. Stinging also works on horses and other pets.

‘‘I was very skeptical. I didn’t want to have to run all over Maryland looking for bees,” Wagner’s husband, ‘‘Sting” Ray, said of when Wagner began apitherapy.

But after Wagner was stung that first time on her knee, her entire leg became warm and she wasn’t pale anymore, she said. After just a few months of bee venom treatments, Wagner said she got her sight, hearing and mobility back.

‘‘No doctor’s ever done anything that fast for me,” she said.

Since then, Wagner became known worldwide as she championed honeybee venom therapy. She embraced her nickname, ‘‘The Bee Lady,” which she wears proudly on shirts, pins and signs. Bee jewelry adorns Wagner’s neck, ears and wrists and bee stuffed animals and knickknacks from former ‘‘patients” fill her home.

People from across the globe have come to her Waldorf home for treatments, which she and ‘‘Sting” Ray administer, and she’s even flown to Kuwait and India to perform treatments for MS patients and sufferers of other diseases. She’s not paid for the trips or for speaking at events, only her travel expenses. For those who are allergic and might not know it, the Wagners have EpiPens on hand, over-the-counter spring-loaded needles that shoot epinephrine through a membrane in the tip and into the recipient’s body to keep people from going into anaphylactic shock.

About 10 years ago news broke of Wagner’s bee venom therapy open houses and her recovery, which was featured on just about every local and national news network. Her book, ‘‘How Well Are You Prepared to Bee?” has been translated into German and Hebrew.

Wagner still stings herself about four times a week.

Wagner doesn’t charge but asks only for ‘‘Bee Bucks” — donations that she says go toward purchasing the bees, which die after they sting.