Reyah Carlson has been stung by bees more than 25,000 times. On purpose.
Carlson, who lives in Vermont, has traveled the world to spread the word about bee venom therapy. She has also appeared in National Geographic and on the Discovery Channel.
"Apitherapy is not a new form of alternative therapy. It has been used in other countries for centuries," said Carlson, a.k.a "The Bee Lady."
Carlson, who had been fascinated by bees since early childhood, said she first began using bee stings for her Lyme Disease after being introduced to the treatment by a man she met when she was working as a nursing assistant in Vermont.
"When you break down the chemical components of bee venom, you'll find 40-something identifiable components," said Carlson, 51.
They include mellitin, which some studies suggest blocks inflammation and has been shown to have anti-arthritic effects in mice, according to a 2009 report published by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
Carlson said bee venom can also bolster immunity and speed up the healing process.
"I don't claim cures," said Carlson. "In some cases, it's ongoing treatment for life. For many diseases including (multiple sclerosis) and lupus, it's a great way to keep things in check and under control. Drugs for these conditions have bad side effects for the liver and other parts of the body, that's why I and many other people have turned to apitherapy as an alternative."
While the benefits of bee venom remain uncertain, and little scientific research has been conducted – especially in the U.S. – the dangers are evident. About 2 percent of people have allergic reactions to bees and other stinging insects, and the dangers increase with the number of stings.
"A bee sting is always potentially serious," said Malcolm T. Sanford, emeritus professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida, in a 2003 report for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "The severity and duration of a reaction can vary from one person to another….However, depending on the location and the number of bee stings received, as well as the ever-present possibility of a severe allergic reaction to bee venom, a serious reaction can be precipitated that can be life-threatening."
A number of Central Florida researchers and medical professionals contacted declined to comment on the potential benefits or hazards of apitherapy. Carlson is well aware of the controversy over her treatments.
"Reaction from the medical establishment has been two-sided," said Carlson. "Physicians who are proactive with their patients are more accepting of apitherapy. At the same time, I have had doctors saying I'm going to kill somebody."
Approximately 65,000 people in the United States use bee sting therapy, according to the American Apitherapy Society. Carlson advises anyone undergoing bee-venom therapy should always have a bee sting kit available. She keeps antihistamine on hand, as well as epinephrine, a drug that can be used if someone goes into anaphylactic shock.
Carlson said she gets lots of questions when she's on the road promoting the benefits of bees. One of the most frequently asked questions: Is it always painful?
"A bee sting hurts. I do suggest and offer ice to numb the area prior to a sting," she said. "It's well worth the temporary pain."