what is bee pollen

What Is Bee Pollen?

A search on the web will show you that bee pollen has become some sort of superfood. It’s all the rage now, and people are interested in its health benefits thanks to its antioxidant properties.

It might sound a bit ridiculous. Humans eating pollen. What are we? Insects? But there is scientific evidence that bee pollen is just as good for us as it is for the bees who make it. So, what is bee pollen, and why has it risen in popularity in recent times?

Bee Pollen Explained

There are two ways of looking at bee pollen. The first is from the perspective of the bees, in which case it’s just pollen. Pollen itself is defined as microscopic reproductive spores that are discharged by flowering plants for fertilization.

Bees feed on pollen. In fact, for most (almost all bees) their diet consists solely of water, nectar, and pollen. Pollen contains most of the nutrients and proteins that bees need to survive, and they forage it from a variety of plants.

When bees forage, they produce a static charge that attracts pollen grains. Pollen will stick to the bee’s body, and when they need to eat (or store it), they use special hairs on their legs (scopae) to comb it off themselves and collect it.

pollen collecting hairs on leg of bee
These tiny leg hairs help to trap and collect pollen.

Some bees, like honeybees, don’t have scopae, but rather collect pollen in small sacs on their hind legs, most commonly referred to as pollen baskets.

Bees can either eat pollen fresh or save it for later and make something called bee bread with it. Bee bread is fermented pollen mixed with honey and bee saliva. Bee bread is stored away in honeycombs and is only tapped into when fresh pollen isn’t available—hibernation, for example.

This bee bread is the second type of bee pollen—the one humans have deemed a superfood.

Why Do Bees Make Bee Bread?

Bees rely on flowers to acquire pollen. Since they are pollinators, they help the ecosystem in significant ways. They feed on pollen and help flowers pollinate (or in layman’s terms, reproduce).

This is a seamless, almost symbiotic process that keeps bees alive and thriving, but it’s seasonal. In winter, especially in harsh climates, bees do not have fresh sources of pollen. This means that they have to prepare to survive long, sometimes grueling winters, with whatever they can pack in over the summer.

Bees make bee bread because honey, as you might know, doesn’t expire. Bees are so intelligent, they figured out that if they store their pollen inside the honey, it will last longer and retain its goodness.

It really is that simple. Bees don’t make bee bread for any other reason. Yes, they eat honey or nectar, and I’m sure it tastes just as good to them as it does to us; but in the case of bee bread, it’s nothing more than a means to preserve their pollen.

Once they make their bee bread, they pack it away into honeycomb cells and cap it with wax. In the winter, when times are tough and resources are few and far between, they unpack their bee bread and feed on it until they can emerge for the spring again.

honeycomb with bees

Do All Bees Make Bee Bread?

All bees feed on pollen, but not all bees make honey. Since bee bread is mixed in with honey, it’s only logical that only honey-making bees will produce bee bread. Other bees will still store their pollen away, but not as bee bread.

It’s also interesting to note that in honeybee colonies, worker bees are the only ones that produce bee bread, because they are responsible for feeding the hive.

bee and honeycomb

Where bee bread is a means of preventing starvation in winter for bees, humans have begun to harvest it as a supplement. Pure bee pollen can also be consumed by humans, but it’s often processed into capsules.

So what’s all the fuss about? We know that both pollen and bee bread are necessary for bees, as without it they’ll be hungry and malnourished. What about us, though?

Is Bee Pollen Nutritional?

For bees, of course it is. Bee pollen is an excellent source of a wide variety of nutrients. In fact, it’s considered one of the most complete foods you can find, due to its high vitamin and mineral content.

That sounds great, but do humans really need it? Does it really benefit us as much as we’re led to believe? I don’t know about you, but I tend to take health fads with a grain of salt. Here’s the truth of the matter.

Nutritional Value of Bee Pollen

According to research, protein makes up an entire quarter of bee pollen. It contains vitamins A, D, E, K, and H. There’s more. Bee pollen contains a vast selection of minerals, including calcium, copper, potassium, manganese, selenium, magnesium, and molybdenum.

You can also find other nutrients in bee pollen, including folic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. It also happens to be low in sodium and fat. What I’ve mentioned here is an incomplete list.

Bee pollen contains 18 vitamins, 25 minerals, carbohydrates, amino acids, and enzymes. Some even say it’s a better source of protein than beef, and it’s often used as a vegetarian alternative to meat products.

People are starting to take it as a supplement because it retains all of its nutritional value when consumed raw; unlike other vegetables that lose a lot of their goodness when cooked, skinned, or processed.

Health Benefits of Bee Pollen

Looking at its nutritional value, it’s easy to understand why people are swarming to buy it. But as I said—take this information with a grain of salt.

There are talks that bee pollen is a miracle supplement that can treat cancer, addiction, asthma, and even allergies. There is no evidence to support this, and in the case of allergies, consuming pollen is, to put it bluntly, a very dumb thing to do.

Pollen can cause severe reactions in those who are sensitive to it. If you have a pollen allergy, consuming bee pollen can be downright dangerous. Never mind the health benefits it could bring; they’re not worth putting your life in danger for.

Bee pollen may be healthy, but there just isn’t enough proof that you need to add it to your diet. I’ve noticed that most of the campaigns in its favor are all going on possible health benefits of bee pollen. There’s nothing concrete to suggest it is as much of a superfood as people think.

That said, it is used in medicine, and because of its high protein content (as well as riboflavin content), it is excellent for your muscles.

Ongoing research implies that bee pollen could be used as an anti-inflammatory, manage cholesterol and blood pressure, protect your liver and boost your immune system and treat almost every ailment on the planet.

The emphasis here is could. There is no proof that it does.

Is Bee Pollen Ethical?

I’ve mentioned that bee pollen is a fantastic source of protein for vegetarians, but this raises the question of whether or not it’s vegan. I think it’s the same as wax.

If bee pollen is mass produced, there will be an element of cruelty. With smaller beekeepers, however, bees are almost always taken care of, and given conditions that suit them well.

Whether it’s cruel to harvest bee pollen is purely a matter of who is harvesting it. This means that vegans have to decide for themselves whether they feel comfortable consuming it.

A more general answer though is that since it’s an animal product, it’s not vegan-friendly.

Is Bee Pollen Necessary?

It may seem like bee pollen really is a superfood, and that without it, our diets will be lacking. This doesn’t make it even remotely important to humans, as unlike bees, we get our proteins, minerals, and nutrients from other food sources—human food.

One thought I had while researching bee pollen, is that we get most of our nutrients from the plants that bees pollinate. It’s probably common knowledge by now, but bees are responsible for almost 80 percent of our food.

Since they feed us, is it really necessary that we take their food too?

On the other side of that, humans have probably harvested honey (one of the main reasons beekeepers exist) since the dawn of time. Perhaps we don’t have the right to be hypocrites. I sure do enjoy my honey, so maybe I shouldn’t complain.

Summary

Bee pollen is a vital part of a bee’s diet. Either they’ll take it in fresh to get their daily fill of nutrients and minerals, or they’ll preserve it as bee bread to last them the winter. They need it to survive, and it’s also an important part of the ecosystem.

People have begun to tap into its goodness, but this may not be necessary and could very well be another overhyped health fad that has no weight behind it. It has some benefits—to vegetarians, and for our muscles, but as far as I can see, more research is needed before we can ultimately justify consuming it.

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