Honeybees don’t mean to gather pollen. They don’t go searching for it, and it doesn’t drive their foraging trips. In fact, the honeybee’s pollen collection is a bit of an afterthought.
Nectar is what drives the honeybee forager to visit flowers. It’s the nectar that she’s concerned with when she returns to the hive and does her waggle dance for her sisters, conveying the precise location where the sweet stuff can be found. By perfect design, pollen just sort of finds it’s way into the mix.
A Closer Look At Bees & Pollen
Pollen is the reproductive spore of the male part of a flowering plant. As the foraging honeybee glides from one flower to another (slurping up nectar with her extra-long proboscis, mind you), she inadvertently catches pollen on the tiny hairs that cover her body. Doing double duty by also pollinating the particular type of plant she’s visiting, the honeybee concludes her foraging venture covered head to toe in pollen.
As she grooms herself (mid-flight!), adding digestive enzymes along the way, the pollen collects into concave grooves on her hind legs that we (most adorably) call “pollen baskets.” She’ll return to the hive with a honey stomach full of nectar and baskets full of processed pollen, and she’ll transfer those to her sisters for storage in the hive. Small pollen traps, installed by the beekeeper at the hive’s entrance, intercept this last step. They collect the pollen from the forager’s legs as she returns home and enters the hive.
While honey provides carbohydrates for the bees throughout the year, pollen is their critical protein source. Without it, the hive, young and old, would suffer in health, vigor and ability to overwinter.
For Your Health
When harvested sustainably by humans—meaning that enough is left behind to provide the colony with protein for the winter—pollen can be an incredible superfood supplement for humans. Bee pollen can contain up to 40 percent protein and offers a natural way to combat seasonal allergies.* Here’s a closer look at what it has to offer:
- a complete source of amino acids, ranging from 18 to the full 22, including the eight essentials
- vitamins C, E, K and D, the latter of which is difficult to obtain in plant form
- carotenoids, which are antioxidants that fight aging
- B vitamins
- folate, a whole foods source of folic acid (the synthetic, lab-created version), which is crucial for women in their first trimester of pregnancy
- lecithin, a fat emulsifier that helps us to break down and properly absorb fats, and is critical for healthy brain function and cognitive health, especially for children and pregnant and nursing mothers
- thousands of enzymes, many of them helpful in the process of digestion
As with honey, it’s important to note that bee pollen varies in its nutritional breakdown because the type that is gathered is dependent on environmental factors completely out of the bees’ or beekeepers’ control. Also remember that the colors of the granules vary depending on the type of plant the bees collected the pollen from.
Harvesting Bee Pollen
When sourcing bee pollen, it’s of the utmost importance to do so responsibly—for the sake of your health, as well as the colonies it came from. It’s best to know how, when and where pollen was collected. If possible, source pollen directly from the beekeepers who harvested it from their bees. They will have details and insight into the foraging plants the bees visited, and, of course, the health and management style of the hives from which the pollen came. If you’re after bee pollen for support with seasonal allergies, it must be sourced both locally and seasonally, because you want pollen from the exact plants you react to in your region.
Bee pollen packs a nutritional punch in a very small package. But this generous gift from the honeybee must not be abused. It takes a single honeybee working 8 hours per day for one whole month to produce a single teaspoon of bee pollen. Use it wisely and graciously, and the next time you see one, thank a honeybee!
*The information in this article is not intended to replace medical care by a doctor. Please discuss the use of pollen as a supplement with your care provider. In some instances, people with severe allergies to honeybee stings can experience similar reactions to ingesting honeybee pollen.