Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bee Prepared.

This is a honey of a non-FDA approved story.

I’m sure none of you is surprised to hear that folk remedies for serious illnesses continue to evolve among those most threatened by infection.  I’m not talking about professional scientific researchers, but ordinary people who wonder if there isn’t something science has missed.  

In this instance, the example of that is Lyme disease, now endemic across parts of the United States.

For those of you who may not have heard of Lyme disease, here is some background, largely courtesy of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some studies now show that the disease has been present in America for thousands of years, but it owes its name and designation as a separate condition to an outbreak in 1975 in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  Today it’s estimated to affect 300,000 people a year in the US and 65,000 annually in Europe, and there is no vaccine.

Old Lyme, Connecticut

The Lyme disease bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread through the bite of infected ticks that picked up the bacterium through mice. The blacklegged tick (or deer tick, Ixodes scapularis) spreads the disease in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and north-central United States. The western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) spreads the disease on the Pacific Coast.

Ticks can attach to any part of the human body but are often found in hard-to-see areas such as the groin, armpits, and scalp. In most cases, the tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted.

Most humans are infected through the bites of immature ticks called nymphs. Nymphs are tiny (less than 2 mm) and difficult to see; they feed during the spring and summer months. Adult ticks can also transmit Lyme disease bacteria, but they are much larger and are more likely to be discovered and removed before they have had time to transmit the bacteria.

Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans, but a quarter of those persons infected show no rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (e.g., rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks.  Laboratory testing is helpful if used correctly and performed with validated methods. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Steps to prevent Lyme disease include using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat.

The classic bullseye rash
My interest in the subject is pure self-defense. I remember when the disease was unknown to my part of rural Northwestern New Jersey. Today it’s said there are essentially two types of people in my farm community: those who know they have Lyme disease, and those who don’t yet know that they do.

Up to now I’ve luckily not qualified for membership in either party—puh, puh, puh—and I’d like to keep it that way.  The trouble is, if you like to spend as much time as I do working in the woods, there seems hardly a way to avoid it, though keeping exposed skin to a bare minimum (literally), and tick repellant liberally applied to what’s uncovered as well as to where your pants tuck into your boots, is good practice. And don’t forget a hat.

But what inspired this column was a conversation I had two days ago with my county forester.  If there’s anyone who knows about ticks and Lyme disease, it’s a forester.  They spend virtually every working day traipsing through woods and farmland and removing ticks from themselves.  My forester’s been doing that for twenty years.

He’d stopped by to check on the work I’ve been doing at clearing away invasive ground cover threatening indigenous plant species.  He said that what I’d done had the added benefit of eliminating much of the tick threat, because in his experience there was a direct correlation between the amount of invasive ground cover in the woods and the number of ticks he’d be later picking off his clothes.

Our conversation naturally drifted on to Lyme disease stories and he told me that he was the only forester he knew who’d never contracted it.  I asked if he had any idea why that was and he said that up until recently he’d attributed it to being careful to check for ticks and plain good luck.

Deer tick heaven
Then he told me of a conversation he’d had a while back with a beekeeper that got him to thinking there just might be a scientific reason for his defying the odds.

According to his beekeeper friend, even though beekeepers are continually exposed to the tick infested outdoors, none of the beekeepers he knew ever had Lyme disease.  The beekeeper could see only one explanation for that—bee stings.  Beekeepers are continually stung by their bees, and an ingredient in bee sting venom has been shown to break down the membrane surrounding the Lyme disease bacteria, thereby allowing the victim’s immune system to battle and destroy the bacteria.

The explanation made sense to the forester, but it got him to thinking about his own situation. Like many, he’d been stung by bees, but not anywhere near as often as beekeepers.  Still, everyday for the past twenty years he’d eaten a teaspoon of honey.

Could it possibly be (no pun intended) that something common to both bee venom and honey helps destroy the Lyme disease bacteria?

I have no idea whether that’s a research subject worth pursuing, or whether it’s already been shown to be a dead end; but for what it’s worth, I’ve long been a lover of Greek honey, especially when at my farm—though I’m also careful around the ticks.  As the adage goes, “So, how can it hurt?”

Having subtly worked Greece into this post, I’m happy to say I’m headed back there this coming Thursday to gather up more honey and write a new book.  I can’t think of any reason to be concerned about deer ticks on Mykonos, but the honey might help with whatever stinging experiences await me.    



  1. That is fascinating. Can honey and bee venom protect people from Lyme disease?

    A serious discussion. A friend died of advanced Lyme disease last November, so it should not be taken lightly.

    Glad Greece is in your near future. Hence, an update on the political scene there will be posted.

    I see that the negotiating team has been changed. Wonder if that will help. Or if it's all as my grandmother would say, "Gournisht Helfen."

  2. Oh yes, Kathy D, my post is most definitely meant to be part of a very serious discussion. I hate to think of the number who suffer terribly debilitated lives as a result of far too many not taking Lyme disease seriously.

    Many don't even want to think about the subject. Which will probably make this one of my least read posts of all time.

    On Greece, yes there's been a change--the "rock star" Finance Minister has been sidelined as the result of uniform panning reviews of his performance by his European colleagues. That change will only help if the Prime Minister is prepared to back off of his campaign promises. Otherwise....fuggedaboutit.

    As for your grandmother's phrase, mine used to say the same thing...though I always thought she was blaming it on some guy named Sid. I can hear her now, "Sid, gournisht helfen."

  3. I'd never even SEEN a tick until we made a trip to Minnesota 10-12 years ago, and spent a day on my the ancestral farm of my wife's great-grandparents. Oh, lordy, the ticks we picked, ick!

    Hope the bee preventative is actually real! Then I won't feel quite so bad about the stings I receive from my bees. :-)

    1. EvKa, since bees kill themselves when they sting (or so I'm told), did you ever wonder what horrible fate they saw in you to cause them to make the ultimate sacrifice? Just asking.

  4. I've had a tsp of local honey every day for the past 20 years. It has definitely controlled my allergies. The honey comes from the canyon near me, but I've also had honey from surrounding counties. It's better than getting shots. thanks for the tip on Lyme disease and bees. We have ticks here, and every time I get one embedded, Kaiser tests for Lyme's.

    1. Eureka, Janet! That's the answer to my allergy dilemma. I'm taking the wrong honey. Thank you, thank you, thank you. In Greece my allergies have disappeared but back in the US they're just as bad. I must switch to LOCAL honey!

      On ticks on you, the key is to get them out right away. Forget about those heat their backsides or use Vaseline approaches to get them to voluntarily withdraw; take a pair of tweezers, grip the tick by it's head, and pull the bugger STRAIGHT out.

      Can I put your fee for the allergy advice in through United Healthcare?

  5. Yes, honeybees can only sting once, and then they die, as the stinger is barbed so that it sticks in the skin, and the stinger and venom sack is ripped from the bees behind. The venom sack continues to contract rhythmically, like a zombie hypodermic, pumping venom into you. This is why you shouldn't try to pull the stinger from your skin by pinching it between two fingers, but rather use a finger nail or knife to scrape sidewise at it so that you don't squeeze the venom sack and empty it into yourself.

    As for the horrible fate, I'm sure they visualize raping and pillaging. They certainly have valid reasons for fearing one of those...

    1. I'm learning so much from (and about) you, EvKa! Thanks (for the warning).

  6. Oh, and yes, there's certainly good reason to think that honey MIGHT help fight Lyme's disease, as it's well-known that honey DOES have anti-bacterial properties. It also seems to help folks with allergies to plant pollens, as the honey contains quite a bit of pollen, which essentially inoculates the person by exposing them to local pollens in small dosages over a long period of time, thus helping their body to become familiar with them and building a resistance to being allergic to them. Or so I'm told. I'm only allergic to rats who can travel half-way around the world, but not to the other side of their own country...

  7. Where were you when I was taking my science SATs? Thanks for all the helpful advice, tardy as it may be.

    By the way, on the subject of rats, they're much maligned--as pointed out on this very site ten days back--but never for their sense of direction. Sooner or later they find their wait to the bait... It just takes patience.

  8. I would be remiss if I did not also point out that yellow-jackets, paper-wasps, hornets, etc, are NOT 'bees', (they are, properly, hornets and wasps... a different thing), and they do NOT have a barbed stinger, so they can (and usually DO) sting you multiple times and then fly happily away (assuming you fail to swat them). Honeybees will almost NEVER sting you unless you squeeze them or disturb their nest or swat at them too much. Hornets, on the other hand, will attack if you smell funny or look at them in a perfectly innocent fashion.

    1. I take that to mean you stay downwind of hornets at all times...and wear dark shades...