T HERE is an old French proverb that goes, while honey is sweet, the bee stings. However, though it was once thought of merely as a common pest, nature's contrary little helper has been enjoying a rather more positive buzz in recent years.
Officially named apitherapy, the use of bee products to prevent or heal illness is not a new phenomenon, dating back thousands of years to early civilisations in ancient Egypt, Greece and China.
But the last decade has seen apitherapy receiving growing exposure, particularly for its (occasionally controversial) use in treating multiple sclerosis, arthritis, infections, skin conditions, diabetes and other problems.
At the other end of the spectrum, on the celebrity beauty circuit – and increasingly on the high street – bee-inspired lotions and potions have become big business, with many prescribing to the notion that pollen can promote tighter, younger-looking skin at a fraction of the cost of surgery.
A household name, and perhaps the best known of the bee products, royal jelly has long been hailed as nature's rejuvenator. Essentially bee's milk, royal jelly is rich in vitamins B and C and is often used to promote healthy hair, nails and skin.
It is also reputed to relieve symptoms of PMT, stress and arthritis. It has also become a useful ally in pregnancy and menopause – effective in lowering blood cholesterol levels, it is used to stimulate the reproductive system and help aid pain and flushes.
And it's not just women who are reaping the benefits. Some believe the jelly can prevent osteoporosis, not to mention aiding men with prostate problems. Those suffering from liver cirrhosis and diabetic wounds have also been known to benefit from its anti-inflammatory effects.
Elsewhere, some evidence suggests bee pollen can provide relief from premature ageing and aid weight-loss. High in vitamin C, minerals, amino acids and enzymes, it can boost the immune system.
Propolis, the natural resin created by bees in the construction of hives, has garnered a reputation for its ability to increase the formation of antibodies and strengthen the immune system. Some studies have also found that it helps reduce inflammation when treating second-degree burns, and suggest, most controversially, that the caffeic acids in propolis could help prevent colon cancer.
And the appreciation of apitherapy isn't just about health. Last year it was reported that fans of Hollywood's Eat-Clean Diet, such as Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry, were incorporating flax seed, wheatgerm and bee pollen into their diet to rev up the metabolism.
Bee-derived face masks have also become popular, with some beauty salons now offering bee venom and manuka honey masks to smooth and plump the skin, the venom being used to control the facial muscles by lifting, tightening and firming the skin.
While naysayers point out the lack of scientific evidence, anecdotally apitherapy's reputation continues to grow, with more research constantly underway.
But perhaps the most contentious debate is around the use of bee venom therapy (BVT), which is said to relieve the suffering of people with multiple sclerosis, as the compound acts to reduce inflammation. Users are essentially stung by bees, often many times, in a bid to ease their pain.
Earlier this month, 45-year-old British MS sufferer Sami Chugg talked openly about how the therapy had radically changed her life. Diagnosed with the disease in 1998, she had been bed-ridden until 1,500 stings over 18 months reportedly gave her back her mobility.
Although conceding that the procedure was painful – multiple bees can be used at one time and left on the skin for up to 20 minutes – Chugg has since become such an advocate for the cause that she is now a campaigner for Safe Land for Bees, a project raising awareness of the decline in bee populations.
And Chugg is far from being apitherapy's only supporter. With over 65,000 users in the United States alone, and numbers reportedly growing on this side of the pond, it seems that the buzz around bees has plenty of life in it.
See www.apitherapy.com for more details
• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, April 18, 2010