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