There was a time in Tami Smith's life when she didn't invite people over to sting her and her husband with honeybees.
But that was before the Naples, Fla., resident and her spouse Jack were diagnosed with Lyme disease, before the days when the accompanying fatigue and joint pain became so severe she had trouble getting out of the bathtub.
"You feel like you're 70 years old," said Smith, who worked as a nurse before contracting the disease. "You feel like you have a hangover every day."
The couple recently joined the thousands of people across the country who view bee venom as an effective treatment for ailments ranging from tennis elbow to arthritis to multiple sclerosis. Patients are stung with as many as 30 bees a session.
On a recent afternoon, Jack Smith straddles a piano bench and removes his shirt as apitherapist Amber Rose lays out the tools of her trade. A half-dozen pairs of tweezers, an epinephrine injector (in case patients go into anaphylactic shock), two spray bottles containing water and an empty plastic bath salts container buzzing with honeybees.
"Do you have any pain today?" Rose asks.
"No, I'm feeling fatigue. The fatigue is really bothering me today," replies Smith, who, as an amateur beekeeper, is supplying the bees.
"Well, my gut tells me we should do an adrenal splurge," Rose says, picking up some acupuncture needles that she will insert before stinging Smith.
Since she started practicing what she calls bee acupuncture therapy a decade ago, Rose estimates she has done more than 40,000 treatments. She is the ultimate proselytizer for bee venom.
"It's really a mission for me," she says. "But it's not about me; it's about the honeybees. What the bee stings do is wake up the body's inner physician."
'A sacred act'
The medical profession in general and national groups like The National Multiple Sclerosis Society in particular take a dim view of bee venom therapy. The National MS Society has gone so far as to issue a paper that says "there are no well-documented benefits" of using it.
However, University of Florida pharmacy professor Paul Doering says components of bee venom do have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains melittin, which has 100 times the potency of hydrocortisone, he said.
But Doering has concerns about whether long-term bee venom therapy would diminish the body's immune system enough to make it more vulnerable to other sicknesses. And he said using bee venom for maladies such as Lyme disease is pushing the treatment outside the range of medical possibility.
"I'm open-minded, but not open so much that my brain is going to fall out," he said.
Those who practice apitherapy -- a type of alternative medicine that uses a variety of bee products for health reasons -- come to it in different ways.
Bee sting therapy is fatal to the honeybees. The stinger is attached to the female bees' intestines, and the bee dies within a half an hour or so after they have stung a patient.
"I don't feel happy about the fact that bees die," says Rose, who places the spent bees in an empty cream cheese container after they sting patients. "I always thank the bee. It's a very sacred act."
'Beehive on every block'
Rose collects the bees in empty plastic jars with a bit of honeycomb inside, along with some water and part of the cardboard core of a bathroom tissue roll. The bees normally become docile after sating themselves on the honey. If not, Rose will spray them with a bit of water before lifting them out with a pair of tweezers.
"You ready, Jack?" she asks, holding a bee an inch away from Smith's back.
"Yep," he replies.
Once the stinger is embedded in Smith's skin, a tiny sac at the top pulsates, injecting about 90 percent of its venom within 20 seconds.
For the Smiths, who have not found antibiotics to be as effective in combating the symptoms of Lyme disease, bee sting therapy seems a godsend.
"When you finally have a good day, it feels like you're high on drugs," says Jack Smith. "You're high on life."
"These types of treatments are really helpful for people like us," his wife says. "You could go into a pain clinic, and they'd probably give you some Oxycontin, but if I do that I might as well quit."
Says Rose, "If I could wave a magic wand, there'd be a beehive on every block."