Charles Mraz, Advocate of Therapeutic Bee Sting Therapy

Obituary as published in the New York Times

cmrazCharles Mraz, an inventive beekeeper who since the 1930’s had been the country’s leading evangelist for the therapeutic use of bee stings, a still unproven treatment, died on Monday at his home in Middlebury, Vt. He was 94.

Mr. Mraz was widely known among beekeepers for developing a hardy strain of bees well suited to survive in the chilly Champlain Valley in Vermont and for figuring out how to get cranky bees safely out of the way so honey could be harvested more easily.

But many thousands of people with chronic diseases knew him for his campaign to have bee venom and other bee products accepted as medical therapies in the United States — a quest that began when he deliberately bared his own arthritic knees for bee stings. His proselytizing prompted people from all over the world to seek his advice on treatment.

”Letters mailed to The Bee Man, Middlebury, Vt., would make it to his house,” said Mitchell Kurker, his son-in-law.

A federally supervised clinical trial of the safety of such treatments is only now being undertaken.

For decades, many sick people made pilgrimages to Middlebury for bee sting therapy, for which Mr. Mraz never charged. He would pluck bee after bee from a jar, holding each one with forceps as it sank its stinger into the visitor’s skin, then crushing the mortally wounded bee.

Charles-Mraz-preparing-dry-venomMr. Mraz was convinced that the venom in bee stings could relieve the symptoms of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis by, among other things, triggering an anti-inflammatory response. Though that idea is not accepted by a vast majority of doctors, many people with such diseases heard his message and came to believe that it offered them hope.

Now the treatment could be moving closer to respectability. In a few weeks, the first clinical study of bee venom injections under the supervision of the Food and Drug Administration will begin at Georgetown University. The research is sponsored by the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America, based in Cherry Hill, N.J. The yearlong study will examine safety; if the treatment clears that hurdle, the next step will be to find out whether it works.

Mr. Mraz tried to encourage research during the decades he promoted bee sting therapy. He was a founding member and a director of the American Apitherapy Society, which was set up in 1998 to promote research and education. And he helped any researcher who asked.

”He used a technique developed at Cornell in the 1960’s to collect sterile venom,” said Roger Morse, a retired professor of apiculture at Cornell who was a friend of Mr. Mraz for 50 years but disagreed with him about whether bee venom has medicinal properties. ”He would collect and supply venom free of charge to anyone who was doing research with it, no matter what kind of research was being done. He was a very unusual man who wanted to help society — both preacher and practitioner.”

Mr. Mraz was enthralled by bees at an early age. He was born on July 26, 1905, in Queens and set up his first beehives at age 14, while he still lived in the city. After working for other beekeepers in the Finger Lakes region of New York, he moved to Middlebury in 1928 and started Champlain Valley Apiaries in 1931.

His beekeeping business became one of the largest in New England. At one point, he had a thousand bee colonies, each with a population of 30,000 to 60,000. He ran the business for more than 60 years, until he turned it over to his son William.

He discovered that the fumes of carbolic acid would prompt the bees to take cover in the bottom of the hive, leaving their honey unprotected. ”That was a very significant advance,” said Kirk Webster, owner of Champlain Valley Bees and Queens in Middlebury. ”It enabled one person to harvest much more honey than possible before.”

That technique is now widely used, and it brought Mr. Mraz an award from the American Beekeeping Federation in 1992.

The strain of bees developed by Mr. Mraz were disease-resistant and adapted to the local climate. ”That’s become almost the native bee of the Champlain Valley,” Mr. Webster said. ”They produce a very light clover honey, the standard for very light honeys in the United States.”

He also designed new kinds of equipment for processing honey, Dr. Morse said.

His passion for what came to be called apitherapy came when painful arthritis threatened his ability to do the heavy work around an apiary.

Mr. Mraz described the episode in his book, ”Health and the Honeybee,” which was published in 1995 by Honeybee Health Products, owned by his daughter Michelle Mraz and her husband, Mr. Kurker.

He had heard about bee sting therapy as a folk remedy in many cultures but initially considered that ”an old wives’ tale,” Mr. Kurker said. But the pain drove him to try bee stings on both knees.

” ‘I wonder if there is anything to that damned nonsense about bee stings for arthritis,’ ” Mr. Mraz thought, according to his book.

The next day, he wrote, the pain was gone. ”I couldn’t believe it,” he said. ”There wasn’t a trace of pain or stiffness in my knees.”

His second patient was not long in coming. A neighbor had arthritic hands that were bringing tears to his eyes during the twice-a-day milking on his dairy farm, and Mr. Mraz offered to help, he wrote. After a regimen of bee stings over several weeks, the dairy farmer’s hands opened and closed easily and were no longer swollen, Mr. Mraz said.

He said he had become more confident about the bee sting technique when he found out that a doctor in midtown Manhattan, Dr. Bodog F. Beck, was using the same therapy. Mr. Mraz visited Dr. Beck’s office, which had a beehive on the windowsill. The bees flew to Central Park for pollen, Mr. Mraz said, and Dr. Beck used them to sting patients.

As an expert on beekeeping techniques, Mr. Mraz lectured and consulted all over the world, especially in Mexico, and he frequently published in industry journals. At the same time, he spread the word about bee venom therapy, undeterred by the resistance he encountered.

”Most people would look at me as if I was some kind of nut,” he wrote. Mr. Mraz also promoted what he contended were the medicinal effects of honey, pollen, royal jelly and a bee resin called propolis.

He considered stings from living bees superior to injections of purified bee venom, although he would provide the venom to researchers if they wished. Some multiple sclerosis patients treat themselves with dozens of stings a day.

”Michelle remembers growing up with a jar of bees always on the table ready to go,” Mr. Kurker said. ”He’d treat people and send them away with a jar of bees so they could treat themselves.”

Besides Michelle Mraz, of Burlington, Vt., Mr. Mraz is survived by his wife, Pamela. His first wife, Letitia, died in 1948, and his second wife, Margaret, died in 1992. Other survivors include his daughters, Marna Ehreck of Shelburne, Vt., and Laurie Zwaan of Exeter, N.H.; his sons, William, of Middlebury, and Charles, of Destin, Fla.; 13 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren.

While Mr. Mraz started cutting down on his work at his apiary in the 1980’s, he remained an active proponent and practitioner of apitherapy for the rest of his life.

”People were still coming to see him for treatment,” Mr. Kurker said. ”Somebody came to the house on the morning he died for bee stings.”

Link to the American Apitherapy Society