The products of the honeybee's (Apis mellifera L.) beehive have been used and described throughout recorded history. Products originating from the beehive include honey, beeswax, pollen, propolis and royal jelly. These products have been used for food, beverages, medicine and countless other applications.
Royal jelly, pollen and honey are required for the nutrition of earliest stages of a honeybee worker's development. Unsealed broods (growing larvae) consume royal jelly from day 3 through day 4 after emerging from the egg stage. Pollen and honey are consumed by developing unsealed broods during the day 4 through day 9 of development. After day 9, the bees go into the prepupa and pupa stages, ready to take on the tasks of a worker bee by day 21 after emergence.
Pollen is collected by honeybees from various plant sources. During the act of feeding on nectar, the hairs on the body of the bee brush against the anthers (the end of the stamen containing the pollen) of flowers. The tiny pollen grains stick on to the body hairs and are compacted into little pellets by the worker bee use its mouth and legs. The pollen pellets are then packed onto its rear legs. In the process, the bee mixes enzymes and possibly nectar with the pollen.
A single pellet of pollen weighs between 7.5 and 15 milligrams. It takes 145 mg of pollen to raise one bee larvae to maturity. One researcher has estimated it takes 17,000 flights in and out of the hive for 250 grams (approximately 9 ounces) of pollen to be collected. The pollen is normally stored inside the hive within cells located next to the brood (larvae).
Bees are selective about their choice of pollen. A variety of studies show bees do prefer some plants over others, probably choosing from those which are most nutritious from all the available pollens. Pollen is the most important requirement for bee growth and seems to determine the ability of the hive to reproduce effectively. The honeybee later utilizes pollen as a source of essential amino acids (protein), since nectar, the other food source, contains only minor amounts.
Bee pollen is an approved herb by the German Commisssion E for loss of appetite (see appetite disorders).
Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.
Method of Action
Honeybee pollen is easily digested and assimilated by the human body. The constituents of thousands of ingested pollen grains reach the bloodstream within only 30 minutes, the pollen walls showing substantial alteration upon examination by electron microscopy. This most probably accounts for the method by which the nutrients of orally ingested pollen grains are released for utilization by the body.
Clinicians testing pollen's action in the blood stream as a nutritional source have demonstrated the passage of pollen particles directly from the stomach into the blood stream. This is called persorption. Two hours after experimental dogs were fed pollen in milk cream, the intact pollen was observed in the blood of all animals, in addition to their urine and cerebral spinal fluids.
A follow-up study showed when pure rye pollen was orally ingested by humans, at least 6,000 to 10,000 grains were persorbed into the blood stream. After various periods of time, pollen grains from the blood circulation were examined by electron microscope. The outer walls of the grains were increasedly altered with the passage of time.
Many therapeutic claims have been made about the benefits of bee pollen. A comprehensive evaluation of over 400 published papers in many languages has revealed less than fifty scientific studies.
A much more extensive scientific literature (over 1,200 papers) exists regarding pollen's chemical composition and nutritive value. In this section, a discussion of those values will be reviewed first, followed by a review of those papers claiming therapeutic effects of bee pollen for humans and animals.
Every macro- and micro-nutrient known to be required by humans has been found in pollen. On the average, pollen contains 60% carbohydrates, 20% protein, 7% fat, 7% moisture (water) and 6% minerals. All pollen species do not have the same nutritive values for bees. The pollen sources rated "excellent" for bees are the species Crocus, Salix, Papaver, Trifolium, Castanea, Raphanus, Sinapis, Erica, and pollen from fruit trees.
The protein content of pollens has been extensively studied. In general, the higher the protein content of a pollen, the higher its nutritive value for bees. However, in studies of protein content of thriving bee hives, it was found the protein content of the pollen was between 17 and 23%.
Bees require 10 amino acids in their diet, same as required for humans, plus arginine. The specific amino acid profile and content of pollen varies. Amino acids considered to be essential to humans are invariably present in pollen in sufficient quantities, although earlier reports have suggested the amino acid's tryptophan or phenylalanine were in short supply.
However, it was later shown the actual methods used in analyzing the amino acid content of pollen used to report the insufficiency actually destroyed tryptophan and reduced phenylalanine.
When pollen was later reanalyzed, using more sophisticated techniques, tryptophan was shown not to be the limiting amino acid. It turned out bee pollen did contain sufficient amounts of both tryptophan and phenylalanine to be considered a balanced source of the essential amino acids.
An amino acid comparison of whole egg, cow's milk (3.3% fat) and honeybee pollen has shown a 22.6% protein pollen to be a superior source of amino acids when measured by dry weight percentage of crude protein. Pollen was found to be particularly higher in lysine, leucine and glutamic acid than either cow's milk or whole egg.
The protein content of bee- and hand-collected pollen has been studied. Studies have shown bee-collected pollen had a higher nutritive value than the hand-collected pollen which was randomly collected from plants by researchers. One study found crude protein content of pollens gathered by hand from desert plants range from 7.0 to 15.6%. Similar methods of collection and study found among citrus flowers the range was higher, from 6.2 to 20.7%.
When these same researchers studied pollen mixtures gathered by honeybees and stored in hives, they found the protein content to be between 17.1 to 22.6%. In an anlysis of 34 species of pollen gathered by bees, the protein content of bee-gathered pollen varied from 7.02 to 29.87%, while the hand-collected varied from 11.36 to 35.5%.
The carbohydrate composition of pollen has been considered of secondary importance to protein. Of the natural sugars found in pollen, the highest concentrations are of fructose, glucose and sucrose. Pollen from conifers (gymnosperm species) are generally low in total carbohydrates while pollens from flowering plants vary widely. The average fiber content of pollen is just under 8%.
The fat (lipid) content of pollen also varies widely. A mean value of 5% for bee gathered pollen is reported. An investigation of the fatty acid content of bee-gathered pollen found arachidonic, linoleic and linolenic acid to be present in the greatest amounts. Prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) can be derived from all three of these essential fatty acids, producing a wide range of metabolic effects.
Other lipids found in bee pollen include cholesterol, beta-sitosterol and an estrogenic substance.
The mineral content of pollen has been measured by turning the pollen to an ash in concentrated acid. The order of concentration of the principal minerals is potassium, phosphorus, and sulfur or calcium.
Selenium, sodium and magnesium have also been found in relatively high amounts. Of the many minerals found in trace amounts, iron is one of the most variable in concentration. Other minerals found in bee pollen are aluminum, copper, manganese, nickel, titanium, zinc, chlorine, silicon, boron, iodine, barium, strontium and molybdenum.
Vitamin levels in bee pollen have been studied. The pollens of most flowering plants are generally rich in the vitamin B complex vitamins. A statement made by Dr. Lunden, a noted researcher on pollen chemistry, said "it is apparent that pollens, as far as water soluble vitamins are concerned, must be regarded as a product of exceptionally high nutritive value."
Chemical analysis by Lunden has revealed pollen contains relatively high levels of thiamine, riboflavin, nicotinic acid, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, biotin, folic acid and vitamin B-12.
Both pollen and royal jelly were found to have virtually identical levels of the B vitamins with the exception of pantothenic acid, which was 17 times higher in royal jelly. Only beef brain, hen's eggs, cauliflower, Irish potatos, and tomatoes surpass pollen in its pantothenic acid levels.
Similar studies have found the nicotinic acid level of pollen were higher in concentration than that found in dried beans and peas, while approaching that found in beef and liver; thiamine content approximated that of beef liver.
The riboflavin concentration in pollen is similar to dried skim cow's milk, and higher than any other plant source with the exception of certain yeast strains. The flavonoid content of pollen has also been studied.
Flavonoids give the pollen their distinctive color, and account for between 0.04 and 0.06% of the pollen's dry weight. Quercetin is thought to be the most common bioflavonoid in pollen.
Other bioflavonoids include rutin, kaempferol, isohamnetin, isorhamnetin, naringenin, luteolin, apigenin, diosmetrin, myrectin, and pollenin.
The most common carotenoids are alpha- and beta-carotene. One researcher discovered flowers requiring insects for pollination generally contain carotenes in their pollen. By contrast, wind-pollinated flowering plant's pollen contain no detectable levels of carotenoids.
The levels of vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K in pollen were assayed. Fatty material from bee-gathered pollens contain between 0.2 to 0.6 IU's of vitamin D per gram of pollen fat. The pollen fat also contained 0.32 mg per gram of vitamin E. Vitamin K has not been found in mixed pollens, although bee bread, which is fermented bee pollen, has vitamin K activity.
It is likely the bacteria assisting in the fermentation process is responsible for the vitamin K synthesis.
Bee pollen has also been found to contain minute amounts of quercetin, pectin, nucleic acids, various enzymes, coenzymes, rutin, waxes, resins, plant growth factors, xanthophylls, brassins, crocetin, zeaxanthin, pentosans, and lecithin.
Enzymes and coenzymes in bee pollen identified by analysis are:
amylase lactic dehydrogenase diastase succinic dehydrogenase saccharase 24 oxidoreductases pectase 21 transferases phosphatase 33 hydrolases catalase 11 lysases disphorase 5 isomerases cozymase pepsin cytochrome systems trypsin
More than 400 papers have been published on the purported benefits of bee pollens for humans. Of these, less than 50 cite studies in which control groups were utilized or in which the researchers were blinded to avoid introduction of bias.
Only 8 of the 50 report sufficient data to be critically evaluated. Articles and promotional literature written about bee pollen usually cite only two or three studies. These studies will be reviewed in Nutri-healthdata along with others not so well known.
The lack of adequate scientific support does not necessarily invalidate the claims of therapeutic benefit of bee pollen. Many of the anecdotal and case reports do suggest further research should be done.
One of the central points of bee pollen claimants concerns the high nutritive value of bee pollen as compared to other foods. Buyers of pollen should calculate the true cost of pollen-derived nutrients as compared to other sources, such as nutritional supplements or foods.
If the pollen claimants suggest pollen contains some mysterious substances, or such a complete complement of nutrients and other substrates and enzymes it can not be duplicated by food or supplement selection, then evidence to support this claim must be presented.
To date, it has not been demonstrated a human being can survive on water and bee pollen alone. The amount of calories from pollen required for such a study is so great it is impractical to expect such a study to be carried out.
An extensive multi-language literature search reports no citation of any death attributable to the consumption of honeybee pollen.
Some people have allergic reactions to bee pollen. Since bee pollen is a food and must be digested before it can be absorbed, any digestive insufficiencies increase the risk of inadequate breakdown of the pollen. Foreign protein structures may then be released into the bloodstream, triggering an allergic response. People with such allergic responses have benefited from evaluation and treatment of their digestive function.
In general, it is best to first ingest small amounts of pollen. If minor reactions occur, such as scratchiness in the throat, a runny nose (rhinitis), etc., the quantity consumed may be reduced to less than 1/8 teaspoon in effort to avoid adverse reactions. If however the reaction is persistent or acute, a physician should be contacted immediately.
Although rare, severe allergic reactions to bee pollen have been reported. One study at the Mayo Clinic reports on three patients who developed severe allergic reactions to bee pollen after ingestion of a single tablespoon or less. It was eventually discovered the three were allergic to ragweed pollens, one of the most common airborne pollen in North America.
Substances toxic to bees and humans have been demonstrated in pollen on rare occasions. Although pollen from certain plants may be highly poisonous to bees, contamination of the stored honey by that pollen has only slight chance of harming the bees. The honey, however, may still be dangerous for human consumption. In India, honey contaminated with pollen from Lasiosiphon eriocephalus will cause severe nausea and vomiting if consumed by humans. Toxic effects from pollen are known from the following plant species: Rhododendron, Andromeda, Corynocarpus, Scolypoda, Fagopyrum (after drying only), Polygonum bistorta, and Hyoscyamus.
Pollen has approval status by the German Commission E.
Blumenthal, M (Ed.): The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council. Austin, TX. 1998.
Chaubal, P.D. & G.B. Deodikar. Laisiosiphon poisoning in humans. Grana Palynol., 1963 4; 395-397.
Cohen, S., et.al. Acute allergic reaction after composite pollen ingestion. J Allergy Clin Immunol., 1979 64(4); 270-274.
DeJong, D., R. Morse, W. Gutenmann & D. Lisk. Selenium in pollen gathered by bees foraging on fly ash-grown plants. Bull Environ Contam Toxicology. 1977: 18(4); 442-444.
Euler, H., B. Hogberg & F. Pettersson. Wuchsstoffe und reizstoffe in pflanzen-organen. Arkiv Mineral Geol., 1945 4; 19.
Farag, R.S., A.Youssef, M.A. Ewies & S.A.S. Hallabo. Long-chain fatty acids of six pollens collected by honeybees in Egypt. J Apriculture Res., 1978 17(2); 100-104.
Farag, R.S., A.I. Ahmed, S.E. Rashad & M.A. Ewies. Unsaponifiable matter of six pollens collected by honeybees in Egypt. J Apriculture Res., 1980 19(4); 248-254.
Georgieva, E. & I. Vasileu. Proceedings of a Symposium on Use of Bee Products in Human and Veterinary Medicine. International Beekeeping Congress, Volume 23, p. 114, 1979.
Gilliam, M., W.F. McCaughey & B. Wintermute. Amino acids in pollens and nectars of Citrus cultivars and in stored pollen and honey from honeybee colonies in citrus groves. J Apiculture Res., 1980 19(1); 64-72.
Hernuss, P. et al. German. Strahleutherapie, 1975: 150(5); 500-506.
Independent analysis of Rich Pollen, Hazelton Raltech Laboratories. Wisconsin. November, 1983.
Jackson, J.L., P.D. Houghton & P. Snider. Bee pollen review of clinical studies and case reports. Int J Biosocial Res., 1983: 5(1); 47-52.
Jorde, W. & H.F. Linskens. German. Acta Allergol, 1974: 29; 165-170.
Kuanta, E. Sterols in pollen. Acta Chem Scand., 1968 11; 2161-2165.
Lunden, R. A short introduction to the literature on pollen chemistry. Svensk Kem Tidskr., 1954 66; 201-213.
Maurer, M.L. & M.B. Strauss. A new oral treatment for ragweed hayfever. J Allergy, 1961 32; 343-345.
McCaughey, W.F., M. Gilliam & L.N. Standifer. Amino acids and protein adequacy for honey bees of pollens from desert plants and other floral sources. Apidologie, 1980 11(1); 75-86.
McClellan, A.R. Minerals, carbohydrates and amino acids of pollens from some woody and herbaceous plants. Ann Botanicals, 1977: 41; 1225-1232.
Pearson, P. Abstract. Proc Soc Exp Biol. Med., 1942, 51; 191-192.
Robinson, W. Jornal National Cancer Institute, 1948 9(2); 119-123.
Salajan, G.H. Italian. Ceretari cu privire la eficienta utilizarri polenului. Ph.D. Thesis. Instituti Agron., Ian Ionescu de la Brad.
Shaginyan, V.S. Russian. Pchelovodstov, 1956 33(11); 45-49.
Stanley, R.G. & H.F. Linskens. Pollen Biology, Biochemistry and Management. Springer-Verlag New York, 1974.
Sternberg, L. Seasonal somnolence, a possible pollen allergy. J Allergy, 1942 14; 89-90.
Tamas, R., et al. Stud Cerc Biochem., 1970 13; 423.
The Bee Pollen Promise. Runner's World, August, 1980.
Todd, F.E. & O. Bretherick. The Composition of Pollens. J Econ Entomology. 1942. 35; 312-316.
Tsutomu, I., et al. Dietary carotene and the risk of lung cancer. Nutr Reviews, 1982. 40(9); 265-268.
Vivino, A. & L. Palmer. The chemical composition and nutritional value of pollens collected by bees. Arch Biochemistry, 1944: 4.
Volkheimer, G. & F.J. Shulz. German. Digest., 1968: 1; 213.
Volkheimer, G. Persorption. German. Gastroenterologie und Stoffwechsel. Vol. 2. G. Thieme Stuttgart, 1968.
Xie-Y et al: [Effect of bee pollen on maternal nutrition and fetal growth]. Hua-Hsi-I-Ko-Ta-Hsueh-Hsueh-Pao. 1994 Dec; 25(4): 434-7.
Walji, Hasnain. 1996, Nutrients For Health - Propolis & Other Nutrients from the Hive . Thorsons - Harper - Collins, London.
Willetter, W.C., et al. Vitamins, A, E, and carotene effects of supplementation on their plasma levels. Am J Clin Nutrition. 1983. 38. 559-566.
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