What's the Buzz on Bee Pollen?

Various apiary products including bee pollen and honey. Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock

Bees are all the buzz right now. Raw honey, honeycomb, bee venom and beeswax — all from bees — are being mentioned as health and beauty balms, so it’s no wonder bee pollen is making the rounds, too.

What is bee pollen?

Honeybees flit from flower to flower collecting hundreds, sometimes millions of pollen grains from a single flower that adhere to the tiny hairs on the back of their hind legs while secreting a sticky substance from their stomach to help pack the pollen into granules. Carrying two granules at a time they travel back to the hive with their bounty and feed it to their young.

Beekeepers sometimes attach a small box fitted with a screen in the doorway of a hive to allow the bee to enter but harmlessly remove the pollen granules from their legs. Beekeepers are careful to collect only a small amount from any given hive, so as not to deprive the bees of this food source. The collected granules are then either sold fresh, frozen or dehydrated for commercial bee pollen.

What the beeswax is in bee pollen?

Bee pollen is sometimes said to be a superfood, nature’s miracle for everything from lackluster energy to lowering cholesterol to slowing aging and preventing colds and flu. Its chemical compound includes vitamins and minerals, proteins and amino acids.

Fans say it’s sort of the equivalent of taking a mega vitamin tincture. “It’s not like an aspirin for your blood pressure, it’s like a food. How many apples would you like to eat today?” says Dale Grindley, LAc, DIHOM, a homeopath at Harmony Healing Arts, a family homeopathy and acupuncture center in Toronto.

Grindley says you can’t really quantify exactly what it does for you. “People who take it feel better," he says.

Although supporters of natural medicine believe in the nutritious and curative properties of bee pollen, no scientific research has been able to back any health benefits claims, points out WebMD.

Allergies: The buzzkill

"You must know your bee status before consuming bee pollen,” cautions Grindley. Are you allergic to bees? Have you ever been stung? Do you have pollen allergies? “I saw a lady the other day take a mouthful of bee pollen and almost went into anaphylactic shock.”

If you know or suspect you have pollen allergies, suffer from hay fever or are allergic to bees, check with your doctor before ingesting any potential allergen. If you have a pollen allergy, bee pollen can trigger a serious allergic reaction. Bee pollen isn't safe for pregnant women or women who are breast feeding. Check with your doctor if you are taking blood thinners, like warfarin, or any other medications or herbs.

If you don’t have any allergies or aren't taking any medications, you can test your bee status by placing one or two grains of pollen on your tongue and waiting a few minutes. If nothing happens, chew them up. Wait again. Your body will let you know if it has the slightest allergy to pollen by producing watery eyes, sneezing, swelling of the mouth, lips or tongue. If no reaction, wait 24 hours before you consumer a larger amount of bee pollen.

We don't want to lose these valuable members of the community. Noel Reynolds [CC by 2.0]/flickr

Can bee pollen kick seasonal allergies to the curb?

Some people claim taking small amounts of pollen exposes your body to the allergen and desensitize your allergies over time. The problem is most people will have an allergy flare up taking local honey or bee pollen.

“Bee pollen literally is what you breathe in when you have seasonal allergies,” says Cheryl Loraditch, owner and beekeeper of Bear Foot Honey Farm in Sonoma County, California.

To improve pollen allergies Grindley says to take the smallest daily dose possible that doesn’t give you an allergic reaction, and see if you can increase it in time. Again, check with your doctor before trying this.

However, many researchers take issue with the theory behind this plan for allergy desensitization. They point out that most people are allergic to pollen from grasses, trees and weeds. Bees tend to pick up pollen from brightly colored flowers and the pollen from those flowers rarely triggers seasonal allergies.

“It’s a big misconception that insect-borne pollen from flowers has something to do with allergies,” allergist Neeta Ogden, M.D., tells WebMD. “It doesn’t.”

Where to get bee pollen

The best place to purchase pollen is from a local beekeeper you trust. Make sure the pollen you get is free from mold, pesticides, agrochemicals and that bee colonies are not chemically treated. Bee pollen can be found in some grocery stores, health food stores and farmers’ markets. A lot of commercial pollen comes from other countries, so talk to your seller about where it comes from.

Many beekeepers don’t collect pollen because it’s finicky. It molds quickly and needs to be collected every few days, and either sold fresh, frozen or dehydrated. And over-heating is not good either. Bee pollen should never taste toasted, baked or burnt, as that destroys its healthful properties.

Color and taste

The color of bee pollen is no indication of quality. It is most frequently a bright yellow, but red, purple, green, brown, orange and other colors are common. Grindley explains that bees get tree pollen before flowers bloom, which is typically beige or brown. Then in summer pollen becomes bright yellow and orange because of the flowers bees feast on. Towards fall pollen is golden from fall foliage.

Bee pollen has a sweet powdery, floral taste. The best place to store it is in the refrigerator or freezer. Sunlight and heat will destroy the nutrient value. Pollen stored in a cool dark place should keep for a year.

The bees knees on taking bee pollen

After you’ve determined your bee status, take one to three tablespoons of bee pollen daily. Try it in smoothies and shakes, sprinkle on yogurt or applesauce, ground into homemade granola or sprinkle on salads.

bee with royal jelly
Royal jelly is made by the bees to feed the colony. Mirko Graul/Shutterstock

How is bee pollen different from royal jelly?

Royal jelly is produced by the body of the bees. It’s like sticky milk that’s excreted from certain age bees and is used to feed the colony, the newly hatched larvae for the first three days, and to feed the queen for her entire life.

“Extracting it is very stressful on the bees; gathering royal jelly is not a natural process,” says Grindley. “You put the bee hive into a very unnatural cycle of life, so it’s not particularly pleasant for the bees, because they are putting out all this royal jelly trying to feed their children, and you’re just constantly stealing it.” Grindley says it can be done ethically for a short time and then the hive is returned to a normal life cycle and another hive is used.

Royal jelly is said to be even better than bee pollen as a super food. There is little scientific evidence, however, other than to ease menopausal symptoms.

“Royal jelly is made from bee pollen but it is humane to harvest pollen and (in our opinion) inhumane to harvest royal jelly,” says Loraditch.