Paws for Thought

by Dr. Janice Mitchell

September brings with it back to school vibes and the onset of a new season. Learning and excitement. As with any profession, ongoing education is important in the veterinary field as there are always new developments and updates. This article is inspired by my recent attendance at an international bee conference, and thus learning something completely new as it pertains to the veterinary world. Bring on apitherapy.

Apitherapy: the definition being the use of products derived from bees as medicine, including honey, propolis, pollen, royal jelly and venom. As in a prior article, it had been discussed that the use of honey, either unpasteurized or the highly coveted Manuka honey, was excellent in wound care as it had antibacterial and tissue regenerative properties. At our clinic, we have had some wonderful success using a commercially made medical Manuka honey (Medihoney) in the treatment of superficial wounds, and the same results achieved recently using unpasteurized local honey (in a bull nonetheless!). Again, this anecdotal success has been documented by other veterinarians and doctors in other countries, and by our own teaching college, the Ontario Veterinary College.

What is new, however, is the addition of propolis, pollen, royal jelly and venom. I will start with propolis. 

Propolis is a sticky resin that bees collect from tree buds and bark. It is what bees use to line the insides of their colonies to seal up any cracks or crevices to keep their home airtight.  It is what I joke as being ‘bee glue.’ The amazing thing about propolis, as I learned, is that it has numerous actions including being an antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and immunostimulant compound. Wow! As such, I learned how two separate veterinarians in both France and Italy were using a combination of honey and propolis products to treat an array of illnesses such as chronic ear infections, eye ulcers, allergies and oral infections. 

Pollen was also mentioned at this conference. Pollen, the male seed of a plant, is the primary source of dietary protein for bees. Bees collect pollen to make “beebread” by mixing it with honey or with nectar and adding enzymes that prevent the pollen from germinating.  It has become a popular energy-enhancing nutritional supplement because it is about 25 percent protein and contains all the essential amino acids and vitamins and minerals as needed by humans, except Vitamin B12.  Pollen is a good source of enzymes and also has high anti-oxidant activity. Pollen has been documented into being used as a desensitization treatment, similar to allergy ‘shots,’ and may aid in the management of environmental allergies.

Royal jelly is a milky substance that worker female bees produce from glands in their head. They feed this substance to their larva and for those larva that selectively receive extra feedings, these become queens—the difference between a normal worker female bee and a queen bee is four or five years of longevity and an ability to lay and produce fertile eggs. One can see why then royal jelly has become a popular supplement, especially in China, to consume for the hopes of a longer, healthier life. In fact, the Chinese have selectively bred for a bee that produces a high amount of royal jelly, dubbed “the Royal Jelly Bee.”

While there is still much to be learned about royal jelly, there are many recent studies from Europe and Asia which show how useful it can be.  A Japanese study found that royal jelly has an anti-fatigue effect in exercising mice.  In China and Russia, royal jelly was effective in treating chronic viral and bacterial infections, anorexia, varicose veins, and stomach ulcers.  During a flu epidemic in Yugoslavia, it was noted that those who consumed royal jelly daily were less likely to get the flu.  Royal jelly also helps promote collagen synthesis and is beginning to be found in many topical dermatologic products. 

Last on the list, bee venom, or ‘the sting.’ Bee-venom therapy has been used for treating conditions including arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The theory behind the treatment is that bee stings cause inflammation leading to an anti-inflammatory response by the immune system. On a personal note, this last one makes me a little nervous as I know at one point or another most veterinarians have had emergency calls of a dog or cat that develops hives or facial swelling or even life threatening respiratory difficulties after being accidentally stung by a winged insect. I also know how much variation can occur between a human’s reaction to a sting as I hardly react to a sting when I work with my bees and my husband puffs right up. 

All in all, I learned that much more is to be learned about this science. It seems that other countries have much more experience in this field than we do in North America where we rely more on Western Medicine and the pharmaceutical companies. I did learn one thing in particular however and the take home message is that the bee is an amazing creature and we humans and animals can only continue to benefit as long as we take care of the environment of the bees so that they may continue to share their gifts with us.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Mitchell is a veterinarian with Island Animal Hospital and Little Current Veterinary Services.