World of Honey

Bee Pollen

In this article I want to tell you all about a bee product that more people are turning to in their hunt for health.  But what are the facts and how can you get through all the hype?  Well, in common with all my other articles, I’m going to give you some plain truths and let you make your own mind up about bee pollen and its health benefits:

What is Bee Pollen?

Bee with pollen.  Photo by Wikimedia user EHM02667.

Bee with pollen. Photo by Wikimedia user EHM02667.

Have you ever noticed that some bees have little orange or yellow lumps on their legs, and some don’t?  Well, these lumps are bee pollen “grains” made up of hundreds of thousands of pollen spores.  The bee’s hairy body, which is usually moistened with honey and nectar, picks up the pollen as it goes from plant to plant, and the bee uses brushes on its legs to maneouvre the pollen, bound together with a trace of honey and nectar, along its body and into a lump or grain on its back legs.  The pollen grain is then carried back to the hive where it is unloaded into cells and used as a staple food for the bees and their young – it is sometimes known as “bee bread”.  In the wild, the bees in a single hive need to collect something like 60 pounds of pollen in a year to survive.
Humans collect pollen by using a pollen trap which is a plate fitted to the entrance to the hive.  The bees have to enter the hive through the small holes in this plate, and because there is only just enough room for the bee to push through, the pollen on her legs gets knocked off and falls into a drawer at the base of the hive, where it can be easily collected by the beekeeper.

Composition: bee pollen varies a lot across the world, so I can only give you approximations, but here goes:

  • carbohydrate    30% – 55%
  • proteins    20% – 40%
  • water        7% – 15%
  • lipids (fats)    6%
  • ash        2%
  • vitamins: C, E, B2 (riboflavin); B3 (niacin); B7 (biotin); B2 (riboflavin); B6 (pyridoxine); B5
  • minerals: mainly potassium; phosphorus; sodium; calcium; sulfur; magnesium.
  • amino acids
  • more than 100 enzymes

Fresh, raw bee pollen is made of soft, springy little grains, just as they were when collected from the bees.  In color it varies greatly – ranging through browns, purples, oranges and yellows.  It has a taste that has been described as sweet, chalky or earthy.  It’s certainly an acquired taste, and some don’t like it.  The taste varies according to the type of pollen, as you would expect, so if you don’t like one type, you may still like another.  Oh, and if you want to try it but hate the taste, go for the capsules and you won’t taste it at all!

Unproven Benefits of Bee Pollen

OK, as usual I am going to take a light-hearted look at some of the wacky claims out there on the internet about bee pollen and its health benefits before getting down to the serious stuff.  It’s true to say that pollen has been used in China for thousands of years, and there is a long tradition of use in Europe too.  But it was really only in the 1970s that it came into fashion when it was proclaimed by some of the world’s leading athletes of the time as a good way to increase stamina and ability, although there is no sound evidence for this.  Right, here goes with some of the claims that I can find NO evidence for:

  • slows down the ageing process – no evidence found
  • helps control the metabolism to cause weight loss – no evidence found
  • increases energy levels – no evidence found
  • increases athletic ability and stamina – no evidence found
  • improves fertility– no evidence found
  • reduces hunger pangs – no evidence found
  • cures alcoholism – no evidence found (bet you’re not surprised at that)
  • cures depression – no evidence found

Well I think that’s enough time spent on that – now lets go deeper and look at some evidence from the scientific community:

Health Benefits of Bee Pollen Backed by Evidence

Prostatitis: this is the inflammation of the prostate gland which is located in the lower abdomen, and affects mostly men.  One form of this disease, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), is a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate that tends to affect older men.  Symptoms include difficulty or pain when passing water.  Many people who suffer from the various symptoms of this illness try herbal remedies, often after conventional medicine has not worked for them.  One of these remedies is pollen, but all of the trials have been conducted on pollen extracts made from flowers rather than from bee pollen, which is from the hive – so the results have to be viewed with that in mind.  Just because flower pollen gives some benefit does not mean that you will get the same benefit from bee pollen, although the two substances clearly have a lot in common and arguably bee pollen is the more complex.

Anyway – here are a couple of pieces of evidence of the effects of flower pollen:  A review published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2000 based on trials involving 444 men concluded that Cernilton® , a proprietary remedy that contains grass pollen extracts, was modestly effective in reducing symptoms.  This is not exactly a mind-blowing result.  On the same subject, in 1995 a trial was performed on 79 patients by Yasumoto R and others, of the Osaka Municipal Juso Citizens’ Hospital in Japan in 1995.  This trial concluded that pollen showed a mild beneficial effect on the sympoms of BPH.  Again, not exactly earth-shattering.

A more impressive study by E W Rugendorff and others, reported in the British Journal of Urology in 1993, involved 90 patients.  This study looked at the effects of pollen on chronic pelvic pain syndrome, one of the symptoms of prostatitis.  There were improvements in 42% of cases, and 36% reported that their symptoms disappeared.

So there seems to be something in the use of pollen as a treatment for prostatitis, but further more conclusive research is anxiously awaited.

Rheumatoid arthritis: A Ukrainian study by O I Voloshyn was reported in the Lik Sprava journal in 1998.  This study of 93 rheumatoid arthritis sufferers found positive effects not just on the arthritis symptoms, but also on other ailments that these patients were suffering from, including gastritis, gastroduodenitis, hepatitis, peptic ulcer and cholecystitis .

Osteoporosis: this reduction in bone mass as we get older comes about as there are decreased levels of bone growth and increased loss of bone material.  The main cause is a reduction in hormone levels, particularly estrogen in women and androgen in men.  So, can bee pollen help to fight osteoporosis?  A study by M Yamaguchi of the University of Shizuoka, Japan, in 2005 was conducted on rats in the lab.  This study found that bee pollen, in this case from the plant “cistus ladaniferus”, had an anabolic effect on bone growth – meaning that growth was stimulated.  It takes a leap of faith to link this study to possible benefits in humans – so as usual I am giving you the facts and I’ll keave you to decide for yourself on that one.

Menopausal Symptoms:  Melbrosia, which is a product containing a mixture of royal jelly, flower pollen and bee pollen, was used in a trial by E Szanto, reported in the German journal “Wiener medizinische Wochenschrift” in 1994.  It was found to decrease some symptoms of the menopause, namely headache, urinary incontinence and decreasing vitality.  Now, this page is about bee pollen and I have to point out that we don’t know if these positive results were from the bee pollen that Melbrosia contains – the benefits could have come from the bee pollen, the flower pollen, the royal jelly or even the mix of all three ingredients in the one product.  I guess from the sufferer’s point of view, this is irrelevant as long as there are positive results!

Cancer in mice: there is one famous report on bee pollen and its prevention of cancer and this single report – dating from 1948 – is quoted on numerous websites that are keen to sell you bee pollen products.  To be honest, I haven’t seen a full copy of the original report, so please take this into account.  The report was by William Robinson of The Bureau of Entomology, which was a U.S. Federal unit, part of the  Agricultural Research Administration.  Anyway, this report allegedly describes a trial on mice bred specifically to develop breast cancer.  The control mice who were not fed bee pollen all went on to develop cancer as expected, on average after 31 weeks.  The pollen-fed mice developed cancer on average after 41 weeks and in seven cases not at all.  There are several problems here.  The first is that I don’t know the size of the trial so can’t work out the proportion that didn’t develop cancer.  The second problem is the puzzle as to why such an apparently significant report still stands alone after 60 years with no other research that I can find to back it up.  Finally, to reiterate, I have not seen the full report, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the various summaries of it that I have used to write this section.

To sum up this section on the health benefits of pollen, I have to say that the clinical trials carried out to date don’t really prove beyond all reasonable doubt that pollen is good for you or that it’s going to help with the above ailments.  Like honey itself, pollen is a complex substance, and we don’t yet have all the answers.  I have tried to give you the facts as they are known today, and I will leave it up to you whether to give it a try.

Buying Bee Pollen

Finally, I want to give you a few tips on buying pollen, but before we start – a health warning.  A few people have reacted allergically in a very serious way to bee pollen.  If you are concerned about this you should see your physician for an allergy test before taking it.

When it comes to buying pollen as with other bee and honey products, you need to look for reputable suppliers because there are a lot of sharks out there who will be only too happy to take your money for inferior products.  You need to make sure that what you are getting is uncontaminated and as pure as possible – labels are meaningless unfortunately, and the only thing to do it look for tell-tale signs of disreputable sellers.  These signs are the same whatever you are buying – avoid faceless cut-price dealers with no contact details and so on.

Unlike honey, where mono-floral varieties (from one flower) are often superior, with pollen it’s the opposite story – pollen collected from a variety of environments has a better chance of a good mix of nutrients.

You can buy pollen in may forms nowadays:

  • fresh
  • freeze-dried
  • capsules
  • powdered

You will find that if you choose capsules, they often incorporate other bee products such as royal jelly.

If you choose the pollen itself as opposed to capsules, look out for the way the pollen has been processed.  Heating will destroy some of its qualities, whereas freeze-drying will preserve them.  If you buy fresh pollen, keep it refrigerated to preserve it.

So there you have it.  I’ve gone for the usual no-nonsense approach in this article.  As my regular readers will know, I am not the sort of person to sell you some miracle cure if I cannot see the evidence, and I cannot see evidence of miracles when it comes to bee pollen, but I can see evidence of some benefits, which is encouraging.  The bottom line is if it works for you, or you want to try it (and you are not allergic) – go for it!