Milking bees, Nelson and the BBC: arthritis, bee venom and an unfortunate BBC article

I was disappointed to see the BBC News website giving lots of space to a health product from Nelson Honey and Marketing, despite a lack of evidence of efficacy. It appears – strangely – that the BBC views the fact that Nelson has asked the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for permission to make certain claims for their product as newsworthy in itself.

The BBC reports that Nelson is

seeking EU approval to market honeybee venom to help people with arthritis ease their pain. Nelson Honey & Marketing says two teaspoons a day of its honey with added venom milked from honeybees has anti-inflammatory power to soothe joints.

The venom concept is not new – some clinics even offer up bee stings.

The UK’s Food Standards Agency said it would be considering the application in the coming months.

[The product] contains a blend of honey derived from the native New Zealand Manuka tree and dried venom harvested from the Apis mellifera honeybee using electrical milking machines that send impulses to stimulate worker bees to sting through a latex film onto a glass collector plate.

While the BBC reports “Anecdotal benefit” for the honey product, it makes clear (sadly, only at the end of the article) that there is no good evidence that it works:

the Arthritis Research Campaign said it was sceptical about the beneficial properties of honeybee venom in the treatment of arthritis.

The charity’s medical director Professor Alan Silman said: “We recently compiled a report on the effectiveness of complementary medicines in treating the common types of arthritis based on available scientific evidence and honeybee venom didn’t feature, as no research has been done into this product.

“As a result, it’s difficult to postulate the action of honeybee venom or how it purports to work, because any available evidence is entirely anecdotal.”

Looking beyond this rather unfortunate article, it is impressive that Nelson have managed to turn the mere fact of an application to make certain claims for their product into something newsworthy. Many companies apply to the FSA for permission to make various health claims for their products; many are also refused (a certain level of evidence is expected). If an application itself generates good PR, though, that could in itself be a real incentive to make applications.

I wonder if the BBC will report – with equal prominence – if Nelson’s application is refused due to lack of good evidence?

Please note: if you are considering using bee venom yourself, you should be aware that bee venom can cause serious (even fatal) reactions. It is very important that you do not use any been venom products (or deliberately get bees to sting you) without discussing your plans and the associated risks with your doctor.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Milking bees, Nelson and the BBC: arthritis, bee venom and an unfortunate BBC article

  1. Mojo

    If they’re proposing to market this for what looks like a medicinal use (i.e. as an “anti-inflammatory … to soothe joints”) shouldn’t the MHRA be involved?

    • Rita

      Is the collecting process entirely benignant to the bees? It doesn’t sound like it. I find it extraordinary that other species get drawn into the production of dubious “alternative” remedies – look up the “proving” processes of homeopathic stuff, for horrific examples. Of course, I’m a vegan, and consider the human tendency to take out their problems on anything that can’t fight back pretty repugnant anyway, but dragging the poor buggers into woo – well!

      • To be honest, I lack the knowledge of bees (and bee ‘milking’) to judge that. Must admit it doesn’t *sound* fun for the bees…

        • Bee milking is better than the alternative as harvesting the venom used to mean death for the bee. Of course, the non-death method used to involve an electric shock and apparently this could be administered repeatedly to collect the venom (after suitable recovery periods) and I have no idea whether the shock felt painful (but the anaesthesia helped) or is more like the contraction caused by some physio machines and the anaesthesia is there to relax both bee and muscles .

          Dr. Rod O’Connor and a team of Montana State College chemists have developed a bee-milking method that allows not only the captured bees but wasps and hornets to produce their poison over and over again in sufficient quantities for research. A whole container of bees is anesthetized with a whiff of carbon monoxide, and then, one at a time, the insects are wrapped in a sash of aluminum foil that is connected to a source of high-voltage, low-current electricity. A brief shock causes the stinging muscles to contract and excrete venom.

          I owe my superficial knowledge of this topic to a elderly Time piece on bee milking (1963), so, with luck it is a much kinder process now, although, judging by the BBC report, it seems remarkably similar.

    • I think there is a process whereby the FSA can be involved in approving health claims for food. Can’t remember off-hand what it is, though – can take a look next week if useful.

      • I thought that EFSA rather than the FSA were dealing with health claims for foods (inc. food supplements). Possibly the FSA are evaluating the Nelson claim on behalf of the European agency?

        There are some guidance notes as a PDF here: link; that include a definition from the relevant regulations: “‘Reduction of disease risk claim’ means any health claim that states, suggests or implies that the consumption of a food category, a food or one of its constituents significantly reduces a risk factor in the development of a human disease”; and also cover borderline cases.

        The regulations themselves are here: PDF and the relevant section appears to be Article 14 (page 9 of the PDF).

        The way I read the regs, a company can only claim that a food or food component will reduce a risk factor – not that the food can reduce the risk of the disease itself or treat the disease.

        Also, the labelling or the “presentation or advertising shall also bear a statement indicating that the disease to which the claim is referring has multiple risk factors and that altering one of these risk factors may or may not have a beneficial effect.”

        Regarding the level of evidence required:

        Anecdotal evidence should not be considered. The regulations state in the preamble [paragraph (17) on page 3 of the regs] that “Scientific substantiation should be the main aspect to be taken into account for the use of nutrition and health claims and the food business operators using claims should justify them. A claim should be scientifically substantiated by taking into account the totality of the available scientific data, and by weighing the evidence.” Paragraph (23) of the preamble on page 4 of the PDF refers specifically to health, rather than nutrition claims and states that “Health claims should only be authorised for use in the Community after a scientific assessment of the highest possible standard. In order to ensure harmonised scientific assessment of these claims, the European Food Safety Authority should carry out such assessments. Upon request the applicant should be able to have access to his file to check the state of the procedure.”

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