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BEE PRODUCTS: Bee Pollen


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Bee Pollen

Bee Pollen is frequently considered “the world's most perfect food" as stated on many advertisements. However, this statement is not precisely correct, and although the bee products in general, specially bee pollen, are interesting subjects in health, there is no scientific evidence supporting their role in improving health or treating diseases and they still require further investigations and studies.

Physiological effects of bee pollen

The effects and benefits derived from bee pollen consumption, according to some of the non-scientific literature, are endless. Some of the benefits of bee pollen are listed in Table 1. However, one should be aware that the benefits reported are not usually from scientific studies. Sometimes the disappearance of symptoms was witnessed by physicians, but its relation to consumption of bee pollen was not confirmed through further investigations.

Table 1: Non-scientific reports of the benefits from the use of bee pollen, both in health and disease.

In health

In disease

Athletic performance

Cancer in animals

Digestive assimilation

Colds

Rejuvenation

Acne

General vitality

Male sterility a

Skin vitality

Anaemia b

Appetite b

High blood pressure b

Haemoglobin content b

Nervous and endocrine disorders b

Sexual prowess

Ulcers

Performances (of a race horse)

 

a Ridi et al., 1960

b Sharma and Singh, 1980

Scientific evidence

  • The only long-term observations on the medicinal effect of bee pollen are related to prostate problems and allergies. Several decades of observations in Western European countries and a few clinical tests have shown pollen to be effective in treating prostate problems ranging from infections and swelling to cancer (Denis, 1966 and Ask-Upmark, 1967).
  • Supplementation of animal diets with bee pollen has shown positive weight gain and other beneficial effects for piglets, calves, broiler chickens and laboratory cultures of insects.
  • Certain bacteriostatic effects have been demonstrated in pollen (Chauvin et al, 1952) but this is attributed to the addition of glucose oxidase (the same enzyme responsible for most antibacterial action in honey) by the honeybee when it mixes regurgitated honey or nectar with the pollen (Dustmann and Gunst, 1982). Therefore, this activity varies between pollen pellets and is much higher in beebread. A very slight antibacterial effect can also be detected in pollen collected by hand (Lavie, 1968).
  • There is some evidence that ingested pollen can protect animals as well as humans against the adverse effects of x-ray radiation treatments (Wang et al., 1984; Hernuss et al., 1975, as cited in Schmidt and Buchmann, 1992).

Clinical uses of bee pollen

As a medicine:

  • Treatment of allergies: In order to desensitize allergic patients, pollen is usually collected directly from the plants, to allow proper identification and purity. A pollen extract is then injected subcutaneously. Desensitization through ingestion of pollen is claimed, but has not received any scientific confirmation.
  • Treatment of various prostate problems: pollen is usually prescribed in its dry pellet form as collected by the bees. Pollen from different countries or regions seems to work equally well. However, pollen has not been officially recognized as a medicinal drug.

As a nutrient:

The major use of bee pollen today is as a food or, more correctly, as a food supplement. As stated earlier, its likely value as a food for humans is frequently overstated and has never been proven in controlled experiments. This does not mean that pollen consumption may not be beneficial, as has been shown scientifically with various animal diets.

Pollen has been added to diets for domestic animals and laboratory insects resulting in improvements of health, growth and food conversion rates (Crane, 1990; Schmidt and Buchmann, 1992). Chickens exhibited improved food conversion efficiency with the addition of only 2.5% pollen to a balanced diet (Costantini & Ricciardelli d'Albore, 1971) as did piglets (Salajan, 1970). Beekeepers too, feed their colonies with pure pollen, pollen supplements or pollen substitutes, during periods with limited natural pollen sources.

Only a good mixture of different species of pollen can provide the average values mentioned in the tables describing the composition of pollen. The real value of diversity of pollen content, however, lies in the balance of these nutrients and the synergistic effect of the diversity as well as more subtle effects or characteristics related to their origin rather than their quantitative presence. Those very subtle characteristics and sensitive compounds are easily lost with improper storage and processing, something to carefully watch when making or buying quality products containing "bee" pollen.

The stimulative effect of pollen and its possible improvement of food conversion in humans as well as animals, should be of particular interest to those who have an unbalanced or deficient diet. There are no hard scientific data to back up this information, but a detailed study might show tremendous potential benefit to a very large portion of human society. The only serious problem with incorporating pollen in foods like candy bars, sweets, desserts, breakfast cereals, tablets and even honey is the widespread allergic susceptibility of people to pollen from a wide variety of species.

Beebread:

Traditional beekeeping cultures with honeybees or stingless bees, usually appreciate the stored pollen, i.e. beebread. Its characteristic sour taste together with brood and honey is a delicacy consumed directly during harvesting. The pollen stored by honeybees undergoes a lactic acid fermentation and is thus preserved. This final storage product is called beebread, these beebread combs may be sold directly but it is possible to prepare the fermented pollen in a similar way. This improves the nutritional value of pollen and avoids the need for freezing.

Natural and homemade beebread will keep for a considerable time and can easily be transported to the market and served - even in small quantities - as an excellent source of otherwise scarcely available nutrients. It can be sold clean and by itself or immersed in honey to make it more attractive in taste. Small pieces of comb can thus be sold or given away as candy.

The nutritional value of beebread is much higher in places where limited food variety or quantity create nutrient imbalances. It is particularly children who might benefit the most from regular pollen supplements in their diets.

In cosmetics

Pollen has recently been included in some cosmetic preparations with claims of rejuvenating and nourishing effects for the skin. The effectiveness has not been proven, but there is a considerable allergy risk for a large percentage of the population. Therefore this practice is not very advisable since it excludes a large proportion of potential customers and puts others at risk of having or developing very unpleasant allergic reactions.

Including alcoholic or aqueous pollen extracts in cosmetic formulations appears to cause no or only rare allergic reactions. While little is known about the effectiveness of such extracts, they are still the preferred method of preparation for formulations in the cosmetic industry. 

For crop pollination

Hand and bee-collected pollen have been used for mechanical or hand pollination. The viability of hand-collected pollen can be maintained for a few weeks or months by frozen storage. Bee-collected pollen however, starts losing its viability after a few hours and increasingly with age. It is believed that some of the enzymes added by bees during foraging inhibit the pollen's ability to germinate on the flower stigma (Johansen, 1955, and Lukoschus and Keularts, 1968). Large-scale applications with mechanical dusters or by using dusted honeybees for dispersion were only moderately successful.

 For pollution monitoring

Since the 1980's, experiments have shown that pollen collected by honeybees reflects environmental pollution levels when examined for metals, heavy metals and radioactivity, (Free et al., 1983; Crane, 1984 and Bromenshenk et al., 1985). Contaminants can be quantified and sampling may be cheaper than most standard methods currently in use. Attempts have also been made to use pollen-collecting honeybees for the identification of potential mining areas (Lilley, 1983). The same effect of accumulating aerial deposits and selective plant secretions of minerals beneficial when used to monitor pollution control becomes a hazard if pollen from heavily polluted areas is used for human or animal consumption

Toxicity of bee pollen (pollen allergies)

Pollen allergies, also called hay fever have been known for a long time but in today's stressful environment, it seems that more and more people suffer from allergies. Often it is difficult to identify the exact source. Specific pollen allergies may be avoided by changing one's environment. Desensitization with established Western medical methods (subcutaneous injections of pollen extracts) are slow and generally have only a temporary effect, so they need to be repeated. Traditional and alternative health practitioners have claimed to cure pollen allergies. It is said that the consumption of locally produced honey has a desensitizing effect because all honeys contain small quantities of pollen. However, not all available pollen species are collected by bees and thus may not occur in the particular honey. There is not even anecdotal evidence that honey consumption will remedy pollen allergies, but consuming small quantities of honey regularly has not harmed anyone yet. The consumption of pressed honey which always has a very high pollen content, may at times cause small allergic reactions (personal experience) Feinberg et al., (1940) have shown in numerous comparisons that pollen consumption only marginally improved allergic reactions, so marginally in fact that it cannot be recommended, nor can improvements be distinguished from improvements possibly due to general improvements in health.

The greatest risk of allergic reactions exists with the direct consumption of pollen. This, however, can be avoided by consuming pollen packed in capsules or coated pills which prevent direct contact with any mucous membranes. Once in the digestive tract, the body generally does not show any allergic reaction. Again, careful trials by sensitive individuals are recommended if consumption is assisted upon.

This preempts any foods in which pollen has been incorporated, but allows taking pollen for special health reasons. Some experiments confirmed that by avoiding contact with eyes, nose, mouth, throat and pharynx, no allergic reactions occurred with ingested pollen. Intestinal allergies to pollen are rarer than most food allergies (Schmidt and Buchmann, 1992). Still, careful trials by sensitive individuals are recommended for all products containing pollen.

Since there are so many different substances in the different pollen species to which people react with allergies, only some extractions or a general denaturalization can inactivate most of the allergens for commercial production. This probably ruins some of the beneficial characteristics of the pollen as well. Getting pollen from areas without the allergy-causing species may help individuals who want to consume pollen, but such identification and separation is unlikely to be feasible for commercial production.

As a precaution, everybody, even those people who have not known any pollen allergies before, should first try very small quantities of the pollen or the product containing the pollen. Allergic reactions normally occur within a short period of time, from a few minutes to a few hours.

To avoid any problems with customers and with those who consume foods or use cosmetics and medicine-like products containing pollen, it would be advisable to include a warning on the product label, for example "This product contains pollen which may cause allergic reactions. Try small quantities first".

Pollen should not be collected or purchased from areas with heavy industrial, urban or agricultural pollution (pesticide). The geographical origin of the pollen should be known, and producers as well as buyers and retailers should be using adequate cold storage.

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