I was at the Natural Products Show three years ago when I first heard about putting bee venom into cosmetics. There is a steady stream of things like this. Somebody has an idea and takes a stand at a trade fair in the hope of interesting some companies to give them a try. Most of them never catch on. I was intrigued enough to enquire how they got the bee venom. It turned out that the process involved putting the bees on a grid and applying an electric shock to stimulate them into releasing their sting.
Judging by the sigh that accompanied the response to my next question, I am not the only person who is labouring under a misapprehension. I had always believed that a bee’s sting is fatal to the bee itself. It turns out this is not true. Even so, it didn’t sound like a fun day out for the bees. I decided that this was definitely not a product for me. Bees are popular and torturing them to get a skin care active out of them sounded just wrong. I didn’t like the sound of it and I imagine most consumers wouldn’t either.
Anyway I didn’t see the stuff catching on much so forgot about it. Until, to my surprise, one of my Twitter chums drew a product to my attention. @just3neeta asked me exactly the same question that I had had when I first heard about it. She also gave me a link to a company making products called ManukaDoctor who helpfully have put up a video showing exactly how the venom is extracted. It showed them flying away afterwards. Obviously it isn’t possible to interview them to find out what they thought of the process even though bees do have a rudimentary language based on wriggling. but it doesn’t seem to cause them any great harm.
But does it do you any good? I found a paper that was consistent with it having some anti-inflammatory properties. This looked at wound healing in diabetic rats. This is sort of okay, but wasn’t enormously convincing. Bee venom is mainly peptides, which often do that kind of thing. You really need a control that demonstrates that bee venom is unusually effective compared to an average peptide. Until that is done, we don’t know if it is really anything particularly special. And in any case, we are not exactly short of less exotic anti-inflammatory agents.
More interesting was a study that showed it might be a useful anti-itch agent. Itch is a tougher proposition and it might well be that a good anti-itch active could add to our armoury of skin treatments.
But that isn’t what the people pushing the venom are focusing on. Rodial for instance are knocking out a £160 or $200 bee venom serum which is clearly intended as an anti-ageing product. Manuka Doctor’s price tag is a little more modest, relatively speaking, but still the focus is on cell rejuvenation. To be fair, both products contain other actives as well.
So what do I think? I can believe in principle that bee venom might have a beneficial effect on the skin. We know that it does have some biological activities after all, because it stings. I may not have dug deeply enough, but I couldn’t find any more than tangential confirmation that it might indeed do some good. I can’t help thinking that there may be a risk here as well. Some people react very strongly indeed to bee and wasp stings, and that reaction can be very unpleasant indeed up to an including hospitalisation. Is there a risk of that happening if these products are applied to broken skin? I hope that has been taken into account by the manufacturers.
But the thing that gets me is the way the bees are treated. If we were talking about a life saving medical treatment, or even a clear benefit like anti-itch I might feel differently. But if it is, as a I suspect, simply an eye catching ingredient included at a very low level then I don’t approve.
You can judge for yourself what you think of bee venom harvesting from this video
Arch Pharm Res. 2013 Nov 30. Accelerated wound healing and anti-inflammatory effects of physically cross linked polyvinyl alcohol-chitosan hydrogel containing honey bee venom in diabetic rats. Amin MA, Abdel-Raheem IT.
Int J Clin Exp Pathol. 2013 Nov 15;6(12):2896-903. eCollection 2013. Bee venom ameliorates compound 48/80-induced atopic dermatitis-related symptoms. Kim KH, Lee WR, An HJ, Kim JY, Chung H, Han SM, Lee ML, Lee KG, Pak SC, Park KK.
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