In late summer my rose bushes start to dance. Looking closely, I see honeybees darting from bud to bud, making the stems bend and sway. The bees are collecting pollen from the bright, powdery center of each blossom. When they have a full load, they hustle back to the colony with the goods. I follow one of these couriers to the hives behind my house and see another ballet in progress. In a steady stream, bees swoop onto the landing area of each hive and line up to enter the buzzing sanctuary, arriving with pink, yellow, and orange baggage on their hind legs—colorful deliveries of pollen. This rich plant protein, the primary nutrition source for all of the inhabitants of the hive, is essential to the life of the colony. It has also been a delicacy for humans for thousands of years.
Honeybees have six hairy legs. When they land on a blossom, sticky plant pollen clings to these hairs and to hairs on the body. The bee uses her front and middle legs to comb the pollen down into her corbiculae—collection baskets on the lower third of the rear legs. The smooth, indented face and spiked sides of the baskets keep the powder in place as the bee browses from flower to flower, adding to her load. She will moisten the pollen with nectar to make it more dense and portable for travel. When her baskets are full, they will form an oblong bead of pollen, about the size of a third of a grain of rice. The ancient Greeks called these beads sandarace, or “bee bread,” perhaps because of their loaf shape and doughy consistency, or perhaps because the bees were known to eat only this food.
Aristotle, an early admirer of the honeybee, observed that a pollen gatherer confined herself to the type of flower on which she began collecting, so the packages on her leg were of uniform color and consistency. Serious beekeepers and pollen harvesters can identify the plant from which each little bead comes. In a 1907 edition of Gleanings in Bee Culture (a trade magazine for beekeepers to this day), a botany professor named A.J. Cook wrote:
Indeed, we can almost always tell what flowers the bees have visited by simply looking at the pollen grains. Yellow is by far the most common color, but the yellow varies all the way from light yellow or straw colored to even the darkest yellow, and from that to orange, often nearly red. Brown pollen comes next in order; and dark pollen, almost black at times, is not wanting. White is sometimes met with among the plants of the snapdragon family and the figworts of Ohio. They also find green and bright blue pollen. These are rare, but are beautiful ornaments as they hug the pollen-baskets of the hind legs of the bees.1
Pollen collection depends on the flowers available, the time of year, and of course the weather. On a good day, the average honeybee will take up to an hour to harvest two leg baskets full of pollen. She visits between ten and one hundred flowers on each foray from the hive, making up to twenty such trips a day. The load she brings back to the hive weighs about as much as a sesame seed. At the height of the colony’s population, some fifty thousand of these deliveries are brought into a hive every day. In one year, a colony consumes roughly seventy-five pounds of pollen—the weight of fifteen large bags of sugar. A million collection trips will be made to gather this annual supply of bee bread. This sounds like a lot (and it is), but a healthy queen lays up to two thousand eggs a day in peak season, so huge quantities of pollen are needed to feed the larvae—as many as thirty thousand—in addition to all of the adult bees in the hive. I think of this enormous appetite, and the enormous task of satisfying it, as I watch bees gathering tiny, almost weightless morsels of pollen from my roses.
Once inside the hive, the foragers unload their baggage in the part of the colony where new bees are being raised. Bee bread is like infant formula for bees; it delivers virtually every nutrient and vitamin that the larvae need. The formula changes depending on the plant source, but on average, more than half of each granule is composed of equal parts protein and carbohydrate, while the rest of the loaf has an impressively complete array of vitamins. Worker bees arrange these beads of nourishment around the clusters of puffy, beige brood cells. Around these chambers they store honey, so that the nursery has a source of both protein and carbohydrate (honey) nearby. An army of nurse bees feeds the brood continuously from the neighboring supply cells. During the twenty-one days it takes for a larval bee to reach adulthood and hatch, there is a ferocious demand for the protein provided by bee bread. If a hive is deprived of its pollen supply, the colony will expire within days.
Left: A tray of screened pollen. Photograph © Holley Bishop 2002
In the fall, when the hive is bustling with activity and abundance, I raid it for a snack of bee bread. I pull out a frame and blow on it to disperse the teeming bees. Then I look for the dark orange pollen cells. The bees have mixed and tamped the granules down into the cells of the honeycomb, creating a dense, lumpy paste. They seal the top of the cell with wax for storage, a procedure that eventually results in a slight fermentation. The “bread” that I gouge from the frame and bring to my lips is a taffy of earthen flavors. It has a tangy, pungent sweetness, tasting fresh and old at the same time, like a dry aged cheese. In this gooey clump of honey, wax, and pollen fresh from the hive, I taste and smell the colors and flowers of my garden. I savor the daily bread of my bees and a flavor that is thousands of years old.
Ambrosia from the Past
The ambrosia on my fingers and lips has been coveted for centuries. In Bicorp, Spain, near Valencia, a petroglyph from 6,000 b.c. shows early honey hunters. A slim black figure explores a hole at the top of a tall wall. One hand is deep in the cavity, the other holds a jar. Winged creatures with many legs buzz around the hunter and the jar. Beneath all this activity, an additional figure climbs up the wall, carrying another jug in which to take away glistening combs full of honey and pollen.
In a tomb in Luxor, Egypt, a drawing from around 660 b.c. depicts a man kneeling in front of beehives, a stack of bloated, diamond-shaped vessels. To the right of the containers are rows of bees: stingers, striped thorax, wings, and all. Hieroglyphs in Luxor describe the delicious flavor and healing powers of honey and the importance of pollen, which the Egyptians considered a life-giving dust. Cleopatra, darling of the hieroglyphic press, was reported to use beeswax to style her hair, and pollen and honey to soften her skin. She enjoyed meals of fresh honeycomb, full of that enhancing and energizing dust.
Petroglyphs in Asia and Africa depict much the same scenario as the drawings in Egypt—humans dipping into beehives to pull out delectable handfuls of honey and pollen. Most ancient cultures revered honeybees. When early observers realized how valuable the bee bread was to the hive, it became increasingly important and desirable to man. Honey was always a sought-after sweetener, but the whole comb, with its wax and pollen, was a prized and sacred meal.
In parts of Africa and Asia today, many tribes hunt for honey and pollen much as they did six thousand years ago. In his November 1989 article in National Geographic, entitled “Archers of the African Rain Forest,” R.C. Bailey wrote of his honey-hunting adventures with the Efe people, a pygmy tribe from the tropical forests of central Africa:
Apumbai’s axe had cut a diamond-shaped hole into the heart of the hive. Obscured now by smoke and thousands of agitated bees, he thrust his hand into the hive. … He reached into the hive again and brought out a piece of darker comb that he dropped to us below. It came sailing down, spinning, spitting clear honey that glistened in the sun … Splat, the honey hit my plate. As I lowered it to see what I had caught, the three men fell upon me. Old Abusa was the quickest: with lightning speed he grabbed the honeycomb and stuffed the entire thing into his mouth—honey, beeswax, larvae, pollen and all. Chewing frantically as if someone might pry open his mouth and steal his prize, he looked up at me mischievously and said as best he could, “it’s great, it’s absolutely great.”2
Old Abusa echoes the praise of connoisseurs throughout history. King Solomon, in the Old Testament, exhorts his son: “Eat honey, my son, for it is good, and the honeycomb so sweet upon the tongue.” In the New Testament, when Christ is resurrected, he asks for a meal, and eats “a piece of broiled fish, and of honey comb.” The Buddha broke fast with the honeycomb that a monkey had brought him from the forest. Later, his first two disciples offered gifts of honeycomb as he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. The Prophet Mohammed recommended a dose of raw honey and a reading of the Koran daily, to keep body and mind in good health. The Bible, the Talmud, the Torah, and the Koran all mention the powers of raw honey. Historically, if and when honey was strained from the comb, the resulting “raw” honey contained large amounts of pollen, which augmented the healing and nutritional benefits attributed to honey.
The fifth-century Greek writer and doctor Hippocrates extolled the healing powers of raw honey. He wrote of a honey-pollen paste that was considered an exceptional salve for burns. Other early notes on the medicinal values of bee pollen come from Spain, Syria, and Egypt. Maimonides, a twelfth-century Jewish philosopher and physician, recommended bee bread as a sedative and as an antiseptic for wounds. For long journeys, soldiers in Greek and Roman armies packed cakes made of bee bread and honey. In ancient Greece and Egypt, honeycomb was the food of emperors and kings, who believed it would give them strength, youth, and vitality.
Since pollen was most often eaten as part of honey or the comb, bees were relied on for most of the gathering work, but some cultures found other ways to gather the healing powder. In China, for example, pollen was collected with special nets, which were dragged across lakes to harness the protein particles that had fallen on the surface. This valuable commodity was then cleaned, dried, and sealed in jars for trade and sale. It was eaten plain, added to other foods and teas, or combined with honey to make cakes in times of scarce food supply. Today, small tins of packaged pollen powder can still be purchased in New York City’s or San Francisco’s Chinatown.
In The World History of Beekeeping and Honeyhunting, Eva Crane relates the story of an injured u.s. army officer in China in the 1940s. Local Chinese fed him a mixture of fruit and wind-blown tree pollen and placed a gooey salve of honey mixed with pollen on his injured feet. “The people stored the dry pollen in clay jars sealed with mud and used it as medicine, antiseptic, and food,” writes Crane. “They also kneaded honey and pollen together into flat strips which were dried. These were eaten daily, and also served as a survival food on hunting trips and during the monsoon season.”3
Crane also writes about a practice in the Yucutan, Mexico, where bee bread was taken from hives and spread as a paste on tortillas. This was often part of a thanksgiving ceremony called Hanli Kol, which involved a ritual dance celebrating the honeybee, believed to be responsible for fertility and abundant crops.
Farther north, American Indians of the Southwest ate cattail pollen obtained by beating the plants against a threshing floor. In spite of this laborious collection method, they used tremendous quantities of the stuff: in rituals, as a coloring, and as a source of both flavor and nutrition. Corn played such an important role in Navajo life that its pollen, the seed of future crops, was believed to mark the divine pathway from the earth to the gods above. As reported in her book The Pollen Path, Margaret Link observed Navajo elders incorporating corn pollen into their ritualistic sand paintings. Several different kinds of pollen were used in preparations for feasts and rituals. Link visited the hogan of one of the Navajo elders, finding “many little buckskin bags containing pollen.” One of the songs that a Navajo medicine woman might sing is “The Night Chant,” which ends, in Link’s translation: “With a god ahead I wander/ and a god behind./ In the house of life I wander,/ on the pollen path.”4
The Navajos and other Native Americans, the Chinese, and the Japanese also ate whole flower blossoms. Historically, flowers were an easy way to impress guests and to add the intense flavor and nutrients of pollen to various dishes. In contemporary Western society, zucchini, nasturtium, and violet blossoms are still considered an elegant and colorful delicacy.
In the 1940s, apiarists developed a way to gather bee-collected pollen that didn’t involve getting stung, flinging nets, or beating or eating wild plants. The pollen is trapped with a device that causes the bees to squirm through entrance holes that are just barely bee-width, so if a bee has a cumbersome load in her baskets, it gets scraped off. The granules fall from the entrance trap through a screen into a collection drawer below the hive. If not for the screen, the bees would raid the drawer to regain their precious cargo. Pollen farmers don’t want to rob the bees of all of their protein, of course, so they use the traps for only part of each day, or on alternate days.
John Pluta is a pollen farmer who maintains four hundred brightly painted hives that are scattered around his hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, about three hours west of Savannah. The boxes have various odd color combinations of weathered mauve, mustard yellow, light blue, and dusty green. According to Pluta, the coloring allows the bees to know which hive is theirs. Bees also know their own hive by the unique pheremonal scent given off by the queen bee inside. No matter the color scheme, most of Pluta’s hives have pollen traps just below the two main boxes. On a summer day, when flowers and trees are blooming and the bees are in full forage, each trap drawer will accumulate about a pound of granules. Last year Pluta harvested over twelve hundred pounds of bee-collected pollen.
The roadside stand in front of Pluta’s house has gaily colored signs advertising honey, pollen, and beeswax for sale. Pluta does a brisk business selling to dieters and vegetarians, who are devoted to the protein, vitamin, high-energy and low-fat benefits of his natural product. He says that college students also seem to like the boost in metabolism for late-night study sessions. Truckers are big customers, too, and bee pollen is sold at truck stops throughout the South.
Pluta’s most enthusiastic customers, however, are sports teams from nearby Georgia College and Georgia State University. It was athletes who first introduced me to bee pollen in college. I didn’t know what the suspicious little granules were when I first saw them, packed in plastic baggies in preparation for a long winter hike. The experienced trekkers placed a few morsels, like chewing tobacco, between their cheek and gum and enjoyed the dissolving flavor pellets as they walked. They favored pollen over other nutritional supplements because of its light weight, portability, flavor, and protein punch. Mountain climbers, boxers, Olympic athletes, even mothers use bee pollen for energy and nutrition.
In his 1953 book, Bees, Source of Youth, Alin Caillas offers a pollen recipe for athletes: Mix ten parts butter, five parts honey, and one part pollen granules into a smooth paste and spread on morning toast. Nothing is as good, Caillas writes, for fortifying a tired body.5
I was surprised and thrilled to learn that Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, was a commercial beekeeper in his native New Zealand. His family kept sixteen hundred hives and harvested twenty to sixty tons of honey a year. While Hillary’s autobiography doesn’t mention pollen consumption in particular, his lifelong exposure to bees and honey would have guaranteed a substantial intake of natural honey and its strength-building pollen (not to mention a few stings, which are now used therapeutically to relieve pain and boost energy). Could this have been the secret of how Hillary climbed a thirty-thousand-foot mountain without the benefit of Gore-Tex or Clif bars?
If you don’t have your own apiary, you can find bee-collected pollen in the refrigerated section of any health-food store; there are also hundreds of sources on-line. Choose something that carries a date, as the beads lose most of their flavor and benefit after a year. Because the pollen is barely processed—screened off the bees, cleaned of debris, then packaged—inside any jar of fresh bee pollen are granules straight from behind the bees’ knees.
Bee pollen can be sprinkled on salads, mixed into fruit smoothies, or baked into pastries. Pluta describes one avid customer who covers her vanilla ice cream with pollen instead of chocolate sprinkles. The granules can also be dissolved in tea or spread with honey on toast. The simplest, tastiest, and most enjoyable way to enjoy pollen, I think, is to dip in a spoon and eat it straight. Start with a granule or two and get to know your pollen. Each grain is different.
John Pluta’s colorful bee yard. Photograph © Holley Bishop 2002
From a spoonful of Pluta’s Milledgeville blend, I select a big, chalky, light yellow granule and place it on my tongue. It is crunchy and tastes a bit like a Tums. Next, a little piece of brown pollen, about the size of a sesame seed, explodes with an effervescent root-beeriness in my mouth. Browns are usually the pollen of summer grasses like Bermuda or Johnson, according to Pluta. A gray hunk has a doughy softness to it and tastes sweet but moldy; it is likely to be from the chinaberry tree. Last, a small, waxy-looking, dark orange piece, chewier and harder than the others, releases the sweet-tart flavor of a tangerine Lifesaver. This, according to Pluta, is goldenrod pollen. As the granule dissolves on my tongue, I can picture the dancing goldenrod plants of Milledgeville, Georgia.
Some of the business at Pluta’s roadside stand comes from men in the area who swear that his product increases their sexual potency. That possibility has yet to be scientifically explored. In recent years many grandiose claims have been made about bee pollen, with proponents asserting that it can do everything from cure cancer to increase fertility or sexual stamina. Pollen, they say, will make you beautiful, strong, smart, and immortal. You will be immune to allergies and headaches. You can gain weight, lose weight, relax, or feel energetic with pollen in your diet. In short, some folks will tell you it’s a miracle food.
Pollen was probably more miraculous in times when food was scarce, and when the honeybee was more mysterious and revered. Today it is simply an excellent, time-tested source of proteins, vitamins, calories, and flavor. The Food and Drug Administration’s (fda’s) position on bee pollen is similar to its stance on many vitamin supplements: it is not harmful, and possibly it is beneficial, but not enough is known to support nutritional or therapeutic claims. According to the fda, the benefits of pollen at this point are anecdotal.
Cleopatra would have scoffed at the FDA. The value and benefits of bee pollen were already well known in her day, and they have been celebrated around the world ever since. Bee bread is history’s potent multivitamin. It is the snack food of ancient kings, a neolithic trophy meal, and the trail mix of powerful armies and athletes. Cleopatra, Hippocrates, the Navajo, Old Abusa, and I have all savored bee bread. Every time I raid the hives, or sprinkle a few granules of pollen on my morning toast, I know I’m in excellent, healthy, and historic company.
There are hundreds of bee-pollen sources on-line. Search on “bee pollen” and your state and you will most likely find a vendor of local pollen.
John Pluta can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
www.pollenpower.com will ship a free sample of their fresh California pollen.
At www.gnc.com you can locate a gnc nutrition center near you. These stores sell a variety of bee-pollen products.
Honey Pollen Nut Cake
8 tablespoons honey
3 eggs, separated
½ cup flour
2 tablespoons bee-pollen granules
1/3 cup ground nuts
A dash of nutmeg and cinnamon
A handful of raisins or currants, if desired
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 f. Butter and flour a 8-inch-square metal baking pan. Beat together the honey and egg yolks until light and fluffy. Mix together the flour and pollen and fold into the honey mixture, then fold in the ground nuts, spices, and raisins. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff and shiny. Fold into the batter.
Gently scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Honey Pollen Moisturizing Facial Mask
Half a ripe avocado
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons cream
3 tablespoons bee-pollen granules
Blend together the room-temperature ingredients. Clean face and throat and then apply the mixture as a mask. Leave on for 20 minutes, then rinse with warm water.