A wagler's pit viper

Wagler's pit vipers (Tropidolaemus wagleri) from Southeast Asia are highly venomous. A peptide has been extracted from their venom which has been used in some cosmetic products © Rushen via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Drugs, Beetox and the black market: how do we depend on venomous creatures?

How many times a day do you rely on a venomous animal? It could be more than you think.

Venom is tied to medicine, the beauty industry and food production. There is also a growing illegal trade of the diverse and sometimes deadly substance.

Humans have been utilising venomous animals for millennia, from venom-coated arrow tips to therapeutic leeching. We still use venom today, although with a more in-depth understanding of how it works.

The bee-auty industry

The way a venom functions depends on what an animal needs it for. Shrew venom, for example, acts as a preservative. Shrews use their toxin-filled saliva to immobilise their prey. Storing their food in this state keeps it fresher for longer.

'The toxins in venom have evolved to target very specific things in the physiology of animals. Most have evolved for defence - so causing pain - or for paralysing prey so it doesn't run away,' explains Ronald Jenner, a venom expert at the Museum.

Small doses of venom are included in some cosmetics and homeopathic treatments as they are perceived to be beneficial.

Some toxins have the ability to paralyse muscles. Formulated into a cosmetic treatment, these toxins can mildly paralyse the muscles that cause wrinkles temporarily.

Honeybees leaving their nest in a tree hollow

From venomous cosmetics to producing honey and pollinating food crops, bees frequently make appearances in our lives

'For some of these toxins, if you used too much, you could end up with muscle paralysis problems. But if you apply it topically, around the eyes for example, it's like Botox,' explains Ronald.

Botox is a commercial product made from the paralytic neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Bee-venom-derived products that mimic the effects of Botox are sometimes dubbed 'Beetox'.

'The literature is enormous on bee venom alone, for cosmetic use and also as an anti-inflammatory. Rheumatoid arthritis has been treated with acupuncture where the needles have been dipped in venom, or even by actual stinging.

'But I wouldn't recommend it. Bee venom is full of allergens as well. In the acupuncture practice, a lot of people get allergic reactions, complications and some even die. So there are risks.'

Treating with toxins

Treatments for envenomation have existed for hundreds of years, and scientifically formulated antivenoms have been in production since the 1890s. These are developed by working with the toxin-fighting proteins an immune system releases as a reaction to venom.

Scientists are also able to test a venom's individual components to look at what they do. Promising toxins can then be explored for use in new medical treatments.  

A gila monster on a white background

Exenatide is a medication for type 2 diabetes. It is based on a synthesized version of the hormone exendin-4, which is found in Gila monster venom © reptiles4all/Shutterstock

'Every toxin in a venom does a specific little thing. Certain toxins in paralytic venoms may affect very specific nerves. So in a fish, a toxin may cause paralysis, but because we have slightly different nervous systems, in us it may silence the pain pathway,' explains Ronald.

Historically, leeches have been used for bloodletting and other therapies, but they also make an appearance in modern medicine. The venom of the medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis) contains a peptide called hirudin, which has anticoagulant properties. Bivalirudin was developed from a synthesised version of this peptide and is now used to prevent blood clotting during surgery.

Venom cannot be absorbed through skin. It has to be injected via a wound, such as those caused by a bite or sting. Conventional medicines that contain synthesised toxins are always administered via injection or infusion, so that they are delivered directly into the bloodstream. 

A group of leeches

Leeches have been used in medical practices for thousands of years. We are still finding new ways to harness their abilities © Christian Fischer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A black market for venom

Some people use venom as a recreational drug. The smuggling of it is a multimillion-pound illicit industry.

'The use of some snake venoms in very small doses can make you feel happy and euphoric, and are used as drugs,' says Ronald. 'This has apparently now spread around the world. In some countries they smoke dried scorpion tails because that gives them a buzz.

'There is a big black market and a lot of illegal trade.'

A single cache of venom can be extremely lucrative. In July 2014, a shipment of 9,000 vials of snake venom (around five kilograms) from Afghanistan was seized in Moldova. The criminal group were attempting to sell it for around £2.5 million.

Self-administering venom is a potentially deadly practice, but some people do it for reasons other than simply trying to achieve a high.

Californian harvester ants

Californian harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex californicus) deal out excruciatingly painful stings. But these ants have sometimes been used for ritual envenomations. © Curtis Clark via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Voluntary envenomation is used in some traditional rituals. In one case, boys of the Santeré-Mawé people of Brazil wear a pair of woven gloves filled with bullet ants (Paraponera clavata) on over 20 occasions, for 10 minutes each time, to initiate them into adulthood.

These ants are widely regarded as having the most painful venomous sting of all stinging insects. Justin Schmidt, creator of the sting pain index, describes the bullet ant's sting as 'like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel'. The excruciating pain can last up to 24 hours.

Prickly pollinators and dangerous dinners

A large portion of the food we rely on, such as fruits and vegetables, are only able to exist because of insects. The most revered of all pollinators are bees, which are also well known for their stings. But although bees are important to pollination, the invention of 'killer bees' hasn't been particularly popular.

There are numerous other venomous creatures contributing to our diets. Some anglers use marine bloodworms (Glycera) as fishing bait. These worms usually subdue prey with their extendible proboscis containing four sharp teeth that channel venom. The bee-sting-like venom is not usually dangerous, but it can cause serious allergic reactions.

A lionfish

Lionfish venom isn't usually deadly, but it is very painful. Other side effects of the venom include headaches and nausea. © Ben Popik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

'A lot of venomous fish are eaten as well,' says Ronald. 'There is an invasive species around the Americas called the lionfish - they're from the Indo-Pacific, but have been introduced into the Atlantic.

'Their fins have venom in them, but they're really good food - if you manage not to get stung by them.'

Calamari and sea urchins are also on our menu of venomous creatures. But wine can also rely on a venomous ocean animal. Part of the traditional wine-clarifying process uses dried swim bladders, sometimes from spotted catfish (Arius maculatus), which deals out a venomous sting.

The list of ways we rely on venom is seemingly endless, and with investment in its use in cosmetics and medicine particularly, our uses for it are only set to increase.

So although not everyone is fond of blood-sucking leeches or deadly snakes, these venomous animals and many others have surreptitiously found ways into our lives. In many of these cases, life would be very different without them.