Birds do it. Bees do it. Even butterflies and chimpanzees do it.

Chimpanzees Self-Medicate With FoodSRxA’s Word on Health was intrigued by a story we read this week in National Geographic.

It seems we could have a lot to learn from the abovementioned animals.  It turns out that they, and many other species self-medicate, using plants and other surprising materials to improve not only their own health but also the health of their offspring.

video of capuchin monkeys at the Edinburgh Zoo shows them rubbing onions and limes on their skin and into their fur as an antiseptic and insect repellent.

Biologists have noticed that parasite-infected female monarch butterflies are more likely to lay their eggs on anti-parasitic milkweed, giving their offspring instant medication, while uninfected females show no preference. And urban birds who incorporate cigarette butts into their nests may be doing so because chemical properties in the smoked cigarettes may repel parasites, according to a 2012 study.

cigarette birds nestsWhile cigarette-butt wallpaper may not appeal to most of us, other ways that animals self-medicate might be worth watching.

Mark Hunter, a University of Michigan ecologist who was involved in the monarch research, says there is plenty to be learned from observing the way animals use the entire outdoors like one big drugstore. It’s something our own species probably once did – and might do well to revisit with modern pharmaceutical engineering and computer modeling techniques.

It’s not the only way, but it seems to me that a sensible way would be to watch what animals do in nature to see how they exploit the natural products, the pharmaceuticals that are available to them in the environment, and try to learn from them,” he says.

Earlier this year, Hunter spent time with people of the Shangaan tribe in South Africa.

shangaan tribeIf you go for a walk with somebody, every plant you pass has a cultural or medicinal significance, and many of those have been learned from watching animals,” Hunter says. The bark of the black monkey thorn tree, for example, is used as a stomach medication, a choice based on watching how elephants behave.

Not long ago primates were thought to be the only animals smart enough to self-medicate. But now we’re learning that ground squirrels chew rattlesnake skins and then lick their fur, a trick likely to deter that particular predator.

Insects have been found to be prolific self-medicators, too. Take the arresting case of the fruit fly Drosophilia melanogasterwhich uses alcohol to protect itself against parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs in the fruit fly larvae; the developing wasp grubs will eventually eat the flies from the inside out and burst forth from their dead bodies. Larvae that consume high doses of alcohol from fermented fruits, however, are less likely to be infected—and if they are, the invading wasp grubs die quite nastily with their internal organs being ejected out of their anus.

Moreover, fruit fly mothers who see female parasite wasps nearby will give their young instant protection by laying their eggs in alcohol-soaked environments – which means they see and remember their nemesis.

Not a bad defense,” says Hunter, adding that this demonstrates the idea that “the cost we’re willing to pay for a medicine depends on the consequences of not using it.” While the alcohol isn’t necessarily good for the flies, they will die if parasitized.

The alcohol has worse effects on the parasites than it does on them. So it’s worth laying your eggs in a high-alcohol environment if it will save your offspring,” he says.

Do animals learn to self-medicate, or is it pure instinct?

monarchWell, plenty of intelligent animals self-medicate, so it’s not always clear. But in the case of the monarch butterfly the mothers don’t hang around to see what happens to their babies, so there’s no learning involved. In this case, the only possibility is that it’s a genetically determined behavior or instinct.

So the next time you’re on your way to the drugstore and pass a monarch hovering around a milkweed, or a bird who seems to have taken up a smoking habit, consider that they might actually be running an errand, just like you!

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The Buzz on Bee Venom

While many of us, myself included, may be sad to say goodbye to summer, at least the cooler temperatures should mean fewer biting and stinging insects.  And while that’s good news for people, myself included, who seem to attract and be bitten by every venomous bug out there, there are some people, it seems, who just can’t get enough.

At least when it comes to bees. Thanks, in part, to HRH the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, everyone’s buzzing about bee venom.  It’s being touted as the latest magic ingredient and can be found in an increasing number of skin creams, lip-plumping potions and face masks.

People are calling bee venom a “natural Botox” thanks to its ability to stimulate collagen production and elastin to smooth, lift and tighten skin. Venom also contains a compound called melittin, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Which led SRxA’s Word on Health to wonder if it works.  Turns out that much of the clinical research into bee venom has focused on its effect s in patients with cancer and arthritis. Studies of its use in skin-care have been limited.

When applied to the skin bee venom causes tingling but has no lasting effect.

I couldn’t find any legitimate scientific studies of the benefit of bee venom either topical or injected,” says David Leffell MD, a professor of Dermatology and Surgery at Yale School of Medicine.

He is skeptical of the extent that bee venom could smooth or tighten skin. There is evidence, however, that the honey also in many of the products could be beneficial as a moisturizer, he says.

But given that one gram of venom costs about $304 – more than eight times the current value of gold, that’s a lot of money for a moisturizer!

And good news for beekeepers, many of whom are able to add this lucrative sideline to their established honey businesses. Salons and spas are also boarding the bee bandwagon and charging over $100 for 30 minute bee-venom facials.

Have you, or would you try bee venom over botox?  Buzz us with your comments.