Woman Dies After Alternative Acupuncture Therapy That Uses Live Bee Stings Instead of Needles

An apitherapy practitioner administers a bee sting to the hand of a patient at Cibubur Bee Center on April 15, 2007, in Jakarta, Indonesia. Bee acupuncture is an alternative healing practice where bee stings are used as a treatment for various conditions and diseases. Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

A 55-year-old Spanish woman has died after undergoing an alternative acupuncture procedure in which live bee stings are used instead of needles.

The cause of death was a severe allergic reaction to the bee venom, Science Alert reported.

The unusual case is described in a recent study published in the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology (JIACI) by Paula Vázquez-Revuelta and Ricardo Madrigal-Burgaleta from the Ramón y Cajal University Hospital in Spain.

Apitherapy is a branch of alternative medicine that revolves around the use of various bee-related products, such as honey and pollen. However, some of the more extreme procedures—like bee acupuncture—involve the use of bee venom. During these therapy sessions, a practitioner uses live bees, pinching them until the sting emerges so that it can be inserted into the body. As with a normal sting, the bee dies shortly after.

The popularity of this form of apitherapy is growing rapidly, especially in East Asia where it has long been used in traditional medicine. Proponents claim that it is effective at treating a variety of diseases—particularly arthritis and rheumatism—and alleviating pain.

While one of the active components in bee venom—melittin—has anti-inflammatory properties, the claims made by apitherapists are largely unsupported by the scientific evidence. Furthermore, adverse reactions to the venom are frequent.

For example, one systematic review of 145 studies examining the effects of bee venom treatments, published in the journal PLOS One, noted that potential adverse reactions range from " trivial skin reactions that usually resolve over several days to life-threating severe immunological responses such as anaphylaxis."

The scientists found that "compared with normal saline injection, bee venom acupuncture showed a 261% increased relative risk for the occurrence of adverse events."

The woman featured in the latest case study decided to receive apitherapy to improve muscular stress. "She had no clinical record of any other diseases, other risk factors, [or] previous reactions of any kind," the authors wrote.

"During an apitherapy session, she developed wheezing, dyspnea [difficulty breathing], and sudden loss of consciousness immediately after a live bee sting," they added.

The patient eventually died in hospital several weeks later from multiple organ failures, despite the attempts of doctors to keep her alive.

Strangely, the woman had already been attending live bee acupuncture sessions about once a month for two years.

According to the JIACI paper's authors, repeated exposure to allergens such as bee venom can lead to a greater risk of suffering a severe allergic reaction. This explains why she was unharmed by the previous therapy sessions.

"The risks of undergoing apitherapy may exceed the presumed benefits, leading us to conclude that this practice is both unsafe and unadvisable," Vázquez-Revuelta and Madrigal-Burgaleta wrote in their study.