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The venom of angry bees fed on a native West Australian forest diet has been found to be stronger – and with more desirable medicinal properties – than more docile bees.
By weight, venom is the most valuable product bees produce — worth more than honey, royal jelly, wax, pollen or propolis — at up to $US300 ($A419) per gram.
Venom contains proteins used to treat degenerative and infectious diseases such as Parkinson's disease and cancers as well as in cosmetic products.
Daniela Scaccabarozzi led the Curtin University research team who collected venom from hives in south-west Western Australia's marri forests.
"We classify [the bees' anger] according to their response to the stimulating devices that collect the venom," she said.
To harvest venom, bees sting glass plates electrified with a few millivolts of power.
The venom dries on the plate and can be scraped off without harming the bees.
"We got one gram of venom in 20 hives during one hour of harvest," Dr Scaccabarozzi said.
"The reference value — which corresponded to the same amount for the same hives — took 100 minutes, so almost double [the time]."
Hurts so good
Angry bees' venom was not just more medicinally valuable, it was also more allergenic.
"We were interested if allergenic proteins were more present in more active bees, and the answer was yes," Dr Scaccabarozzi said.
This suggests some bees really do sting harder and more painfully than others.
The amount of venom varied significantly between some study sites — on average, hives in Harvey produced more than five times as much as those in Byford, only 100 kilometres to the north.
Many of the proteins in the venom were unknown to the researchers, leaving the door open for other medicinal or allergenic properties to be identified.
"Two thirds of them didn't match former findings," Dr Scaccabarozzi said.
"There is the potential here to characterise new proteins with potential beneficial properties.
"We think there is great potential to keep going — it could be a profitable product."
Honeypot or honey trap?
Despite its high value, beekeeper and Curtin researcher Dr Tristan Campbell is hesitant to recommend the industry adopt venom harvesting en masse.
He contributed to the study as a co-author and commercial beekeeper whose hives were harvested for venom.
"The return is not necessarily there yet when you look at the additional capital cost," he said.
"The value varies a lot — I've seen rates as low as $30, as high as $300 per gram."
That inconsistency is closely related to the level of processing the venom has undergone.
"There's no real standardisation of what you mean by 'bee venom' — it could be the wet product, the dry product, it might be based on the chemical properties," Dr Campbell said.
However, with standardisation and scale of production, he said, venom could be reliably harvested alongside honey.
"When I went back [the day after venom harvesting], there was no visible harm, no indication of mortality — nothing to indicate an adverse effect on the hive health," he said.
"I would love to see some more work done on the practicalities of the process to get to a commercially viable product."