It seems that beekeepers are easily seduced by schemes that appear to be fool proof at the outset, but when closely investigated, are fraught with problems. The 1950s saw first hand the effects of one of these phenomena. At that time, the royal jelly market appeared to explode with possibilities. Profits were high and many beekeepers in search of quick gain, borrowed money and converted large portions of their operation to jelly production. The result was the jelly market collapsed, putting many beekeepers out of business and forcing others deep into debt.
The pollen boom of the 1980s was touted as a can’t loose proposition by its promoters, and some of that reputation continues. After all, not only was the demand for pollen as human food at an all time high, but also trapping pollen from a colony was beneficial to the bees, reducing swarming while at the same time increasing honey production. Is all of this too good to be true? That’s for the beekeeper to decide, but more and more facts come to the fore each day, and all should be carefully studied before a decision is made to go for broke producing bee-collected pollen.
In summary, here is Food and Drug Administration’s position on bee pollen in human health:
“Under the law, since the pollen has not been shown to be harmful other than to those suffering allergy, bee pollen may be marketed as a food, provided no nutrition or therapeutic claims are made or implied regarding it. Thus, if the labeling (including pamphlets or advertising associated with the product) does not suggest that it is intended for use other than food, bee pollen marketed as a food need only meet the same general labeling requirements as other foods, and be prepared, packed and held in a sanitary manner.
“Those who claim bee pollen cures or alleviates any illness or produces therapeutic benefit are promoting the product as a drug, which is not legal. With reference to bee pollen’s value for humans, some claims made by promoters that are suspect, including:
(1) pollen is not a giant germ killer in which bacteria do not exist; it is rapidly attacked by bacteria, yeast and other fungi,
(2) pollen cannot be called nature’s most perfect food; it isn’t even perfect for bees which require supplementary carbohydrates (nectar or honey) to survive,
(3) pollen doesn’t retard aging by peoples in the Caucasus region of Soviet Georgia; a study of eating habits there doesn’t even mention pollen,
(4) pollen is not the richest source of protein known to science; the major constituent of pollen is carbohydrate, not protein, and the amount of the latter varies considerably among pollens from various sources,
(5) bee pollen does not relieve allergy, asthma and hay fever; no scientific studies support this, on the contrary, persons eating pollen must be on the look out for potential allergic reactions,
(6) pollen improves athletic performance; extensive study at Louisiana State University reveals no significant improvement in either training or performance.
Note this could be subject to change so its best to always look for most current information.
POLLEN UTILIZATION IN HUMANS
Although usefulness of pollen as a human nutrient is still an enigma, a recent study does show that pollen from at least one species of plant is digestible by mice. J.O. Schmidt and Patricia J. Schmidt in “Pollen Digestability and Its Potential Nutrtional Value,” Gleanings in Bee Culture, Vol. 115 (6), June, 1984, pp. 320-322, show that velvet mesquite (Prosopsis velutina) pollen is digested and supports mice growth. There is one caveat, however. It appears to take greater consumption of mesquite pollen by mice to equal weight gain provided by comparable milk and egg protein-based diets. The authors conclude:
“Pollen can be considered either a potential food or a nutrient supplement. Whatever it is considered, potential consumers should be aware that the levels present in half a dozen tablets, or about 3 g, does (sic) not provide nutrients to equal those present in an otherwise unbalanced diet. This is not to suggest that pollen cannot be of any value, only that if pollen is treated as food, more than 6 tablets may be needed to accrue real benefit. When compared to supplements such as vitamin/mineral tablets, pollen contains much lower levels of these micronutrients than the supplements. This…does not imply that pollen has no potential benefit, only that it should not replace good dietary and health practices. Pollen in addition to a good diet could conceivably be beneficial, but to date there is little evidence to support or refute this.”
It should be emphasized, that the above study was done on bee collected pollen from only one species of plant. Most pollen trapped by beekeepers over time will be a mixture from several plant species. According to Dr. P. Witherell, “Other Products of the Hive,” Chapter XVIII, The Hive and the Honey Bee, Dadant & Sons, Inc., Hamilton, IL, 1975, pollen can vary greatly in its nutritional content from as low as seven percent protein (pine) to over thirty-five percent (date palm). Thus, even for bees, a mixture of pollens is necessary to achieve a well balanced diet.
Something addressed by few is the nutritional loss in stored pollen. Study by Dr. A. Dietz at the University of Georgia has shown that stored pollen (especially dried pollen) losses some of its nutritional value for bees over time. Studies of this sort for bee collected pollen in human nutrition might be extremely revealing, but few if any have been done so far.
POLLEN CONTAMINANTS AND STANDARDS
Beyond immediate benefit to humans, there are other questions that have yet to be answered concerning bee collected pollen as food. Among these are potential contamination with heavy metals or pesticides. And, as noted elsewhere, pollen from some plants may be responsible for severe allergic reactions; many pollen products instruct the user to begin with small doses just in case potential for allergic reaction exists.
The lack of standards in processing bee collected pollen could be a time bomb. As mentioned above, of prime importance to the Food and Drug Administration is that pollen, “…be prepared, packed and held in a sanitary manner.” Details as to what this means have not been spelled out, but at any moment FDA could institute specific regulations regarding pollen preparation. A recent article by K. Benson of El Toro California in The Speedy Bee, Vol 13 (5), May 1984, pp. 14,20 deals with this important question. The author emphatically states:
“…collecting pollen commercially is an expensive and labor intensive enterprise that requires mechanization, special training and constant attention. Frequent collection and processing are needed to produce quality pollen. It must be collected, cleaned and frozen quickly before it becomes too dry, too wet, mildewed, ruined by insects, or overflows the pollen drawer. There are no vacations during the pollen season.”
Of primary concern, the article states, is cleanliness of bee collected pollen. The kinds of debris and foreign matter that can be found in pollen is remarkable. A partial listing includes:
(1) lost bee parts;
(2) bits of plants like leaves and straw;
(3) pollinia or stamens from certain plants that stick to bees and pollen;
(4) hair-like threads ;
(5) various insects, some invisible to the human eye and
(6) mummies and scales from bee diseases.
Wax moths also find the pollen drawer as a marvelous haven; their droppings, webs and cocoons must be removed. In addition, a few mouse droppings will render the entire pollen batch unusable and spilled pollen should never be run through a cleaning machine. Competent buyers will not touch pollen that has any beekeeper dirt in it. Cleaning pollen is an art in itself. Bee-collected pollen must be picked up at regular intervals from traps and protected from moisture; if it becomes wet, it is not salvageable.
Stored pollen is a marvelous medium for growth of fungi and bacteria. Of major concern in moist environments is the ever present threat of aflatoxin, produced by fungi of the Aspergillis genus. Bee-collected pollen is not usually consumed in as great a quantity as other stored products and is generally quickly dried to below twenty-five percent moisture, optimum for Aspergillis growth, so that danger from this is often minimized. However, it nevertheless is a quality factor that cannot be ignored at present, and one ripe for bureaucratic regulation in the future.
Some promoters have suggested pollen trapping to be beneficial to a bee colony. This is debatable at best. Dr. Alfred Dietz, at the University of Georgia in his studies of honey bee-marsh interactions, concluded that constant trapping of pollen decreases population potential by as much as one-third in some colonies. Steve Taber, retired from the Tucson Bee Laboratory, in “Pollen and Pollen Trapping,” American Bee Journal, Vol. 124 (7), July 1984, pp. 512-513, wrote:
“If you put on pollen traps, you should expect certain hive problems that you don’t have without them. Don’t hurt your bees. Don’t force the bees into a pollen deficient diet…My suggestion is that after trapping pollen for two weeks, you should remove the traps for a week.”
Too often marketing is one of the last considerations thought about in the beekeeping business. The lesson of the jelly market collapse of the 1950s should not be lost. Existence of a reliable market is paramount before thinking of diverting resources to pollen production. Last, but certainly not least, the beekeeper must be sure a potential to make a profit exists. If one doesn’t know how much it costs to produce a pound of pollen, how can a profitable price be determined? Conducting an ongoing financial analysis is imperative.
There’s a lot of pollen consumption going on in Europe these days. One just has to look at the health food stores and pharmacies along one of France’s most vibrant streets, the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence. The April edition of the Revue Française d’Apiculture (No. 572, pp. 161-3) reports on research done by Patrice Percie-du-Sert on pollen in an attempt to determine its effects on human nutrition.
One finding that surprises few is that although dried and fresh pollen have more or less the same constituents, the biological effects are far more potent for the fresh. As a consequence, Mr. Percie-du-Sert collects his pollen in twenty-spoonful amounts in plastic sacks, fumigates it with nitrogen gas and immediately puts it in the freezer. He can subsequently provide pollen to the consumer wrapped only in paper which will be viable in a refrigerator for some six weeks.
Mr. Percie-du-Sert has developed a test to determine pollen’s antibiological activity. He uses a culture of Proteus vulgaris as the test organism in his bioassay. The differences between dried pollen and fresh noted above were confirmed using chestnut and other pollens, notably willow. The origin of the activity Mr. Percie-du-Sert concludes is in lactic fermentation. Like in the first part of the human digestive tract, lactic intestinal flora in the bee are responsible for creating an environment that digests long-chain sugars and cellulose, producing in the process vitamins K and B. This activity helps to ameliorate a major problem in human nutrition, Mr. Percie-du-Sert says, over consumption of the refined, complex sugar, sucrose.
In conclusion, Mr. Percie-du-Sert says, two fundamental facts are involved in the human imuno-defensive mechanism with reference to pollen:
1. Lactic bacteria are an important barrier to external pathogenic bacteria like salmonella, proteus and yeasts (Candida albicans).
2. Fresh pollen favors growth of lactic bacteria, especially in conjunction with consumption of honey and other fruits.
Several questions come to mind with reference to this line of research. How does one know which pollen to consume for maximum antibiotic activity and how much? Where does this information leave the consumption of air-dried pollen, the product most often sold to consumers? And although biological activity is important, little mention is made by Mr. Percie-du-Sert of two possibly more important issues in pollen collection; the cleanliness and standardization of the end product.
Pollen is an important constituent of honey. It is also a principle way the source of honey can be determined for marketing and labeling a beekeeper’s product.