A wide range of products derived from bees, including honey, propolis, bee pollen, bee bread, royal jelly, beeswax, and bee venom, have been used since ancient times for medical purposes.1 Specifically, bee venom has been used in traditional medicine to treat multiple disorders, including arthritis, cancer, pain, rheumatism, and skin diseases.2,3 The primary active constituent of bee venom is melittin, an amphiphilic peptide containing 26 amino acid residues and known to impart anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, analgesic, and anticancer effects.4-7 Additional anti-inflammatory compounds found in bee venom include adolapin, apamin, and phospholipase A2; melittin and phospholipase A2 are also capable of delivering pro-inflammatory activity.8,9
The anti-aging, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties of bee venom have been cited as justification for its use as a cosmetic ingredient.10 In experimental studies, antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory effects have been reported.11 Bee venom phospholipase A2 has also demonstrated notable success in vitro and in vivo in conferring immunomodulatory effects and is a key component in past and continuing use of bee venom therapy for immune-related disorders, such as arthritis.12
A recent review of the biomedical literature by Nguyen et al. reveals that bee venom is one of the key ingredients in the booming Korean cosmeceuticals industry.13 Kim et al. reviewed the therapeutic applications of bee venom in 2019, noting that anti-inflammatory, antiapoptotic, antifibrotic, antimicrobial, and anticancer properties have been cited in experimental and clinical reports, with cutaneous treatments ranging from acne, alopecia, and atopic dermatitis to melanoma, morphea, photoaging, psoriasis, vitiligo, wounds, and wrinkles.14 This column focuses on the use of bee venom in acupuncture and wound healing, as well as some other potential applications of this bee product used for millennia.
Bee venom acupuncture entails the application of bee venom to the tips of acupuncture needles, which are then applied to acupoints on the skin. Cherniack and Govorushko state that several small studies in humans show that bee venom acupuncture has been used effectively to treat various musculoskeletal and neurological conditions.8
In 2016, Sur et al. explored the effects of bee venom acupuncture on atopic dermatitis in a mouse model with lesions induced by trimellitic anhydride. Bee venom treatment was found to significantly ease inflammation, lesion thickness, and lymph node weight. Suppression of T-cell proliferation and infiltration, Th1 and Th2 cytokine synthesis, and interleukin (IL)-4 and immunoglobulin E (IgE) production was also noted.15
A case report by Hwang and Kim in 2018 described the successful use of bee venom acupuncture in the treatment of a 64-year-old Korean woman with circumscribed morphea resulting from systemic sclerosis. Subcutaneous bee venom acupuncture along the margins resolved pruritus through 2 months of follow-up.11
A study by Hozzein et al. in 2018 on protecting functional macrophages from apoptosis and improving Nrf2, Ang-1, and Tie-2 signaling in diabetic wound healing in mice revealed that bee venom supports immune function, thus promoting healing from diabetic wounds.(16) Previously, this team had shown that bee venom facilitates wound healing in diabetic mice by inhibiting the activation of transcription factor-3 and inducible nitric oxide synthase-mediated stress.17
In early 2020, Nakashima et al. reported their results showing that bee venom-derived phospholipase A2 augmented poly(I:C)-induced activation in human keratinocytes, suggesting that it could play a role in wound healing promotion through enhanced TLR3 responses.18
A 2016 study on the effect of bee venom on alopecia in C57BL/6 mice by Park et al. showed that the bee toxin dose-dependently stimulated proliferation of several growth factors, including fibroblast growth factors 2 and 7, as compared with the control group. Bee venom also suppressed transition from the anagen to catagen phases, nurtured hair growth, and presented the potential as a strong 5α-reductase inhibitor.19
Anticancer and anti-arthritic activity
In 2007, Son et al. reported that the various peptides (melittin, apamin, adolapin, the mast-cell-degranulating peptide), enzymes (i.e., phospholipase A2), as well as biologically active amines (i.e., histamine and epinephrine) and nonpeptide components in bee venom are thought to account for multiple pharmaceutical properties that yield anti-arthritis, antinociceptive, and anticancer effects.2
In 2019, Lim et al. determined that bee venom and melittin inhibited the growth and migration of melanoma cells (B16F10, A375SM, and SK-MEL-28) by downregulating the PI3K/AKT/mTOR and MAPK signaling pathways. They concluded that melittin has the potential for use in preventing and treating malignant melanoma.4
Heo et al. conducted phototoxicity and skin sensitization studies of bee venom, as well as a bee venom from which they removed phospholipase A2, and determined that both were nonphototoxic substances and did not act as sensitizers.20
Han et al. assessed the skin safety of bee venom on tests in healthy male Hartley guinea pigs in 2017 and found that bee venom application engendered no toxic reactions, including any signs of cutaneous phototoxicity or skin photosensitization, and is likely safe for inclusion as a topical skin care ingredient.10
Han et al. also evaluated the beneficial effects of bee venom serum on facial wrinkles in a small study on humans (22 South Korean women between 30 and 49 years old), finding clinical improvements as seen through reductions in wrinkle count, average wrinkle depth, and total wrinkle area. The authors, noting that this was the first clinical study to assess the results of using bee venom cosmetics on facial skin, also cited the relative safety of the product, which presents nominal irritation potential, and acknowledged its present use in the cosmetics industry.21
Bees play a critical role in the web of life as they pollinate approximately one-third of our food.Perhaps counterintuitively, given our awareness of the painful and potentially serious reactions to bee stings, bee venom has also been found to deliver multiple salutary effects. More research is necessary to ascertain the viability of using bee venom as a reliable treatment for the various cutaneous conditions for which it demonstrates potential benefits. Current evidence presents justification for further investigation.
is a private practice dermatologist, researcher, author, and entrepreneur who practices in Miami. She founded the Cosmetic Dermatology Center at the University of Miami in 1997. Dr. Baumann has written two textbooks and a New York Times Best Sellers book for consumers. Dr. Baumann has received funding for advisory boards and/or clinical research trials from Allergan, Galderma, Revance, Evolus, and Burt’s Bees. She is the CEO of , a company that independently tests skin care products and makes recommendations to physicians on which skin care technologies are best. Write to her at .
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