Bee pollen is also sometimes referred to as bee bread or ambrosia, which translates as “Food of the Gods”. When foraging bees return to the hive carrying pollen they pass it to a worker bee. The worker bees combine the pollen with honey or nectar, enzymes, fungi, bacteria and bee secretions and use their head to pack it into granules. Collecting pollen and packing it into granules is hard work for the bees; at least 50 foraging trips are needed to bring back just 1 gram of pollen to the hive. You can rest assured though that removing some pollen for human consumption does no harm to the bees and that enough is left to nourish the hive. The resulting bee pollen is higher in nutrition than pollen alone and provides the primary source of protein for the bees.
Traditional Uses of Bee Pollen
Bee pollen has been used as a nutritional and medicinal food by cultures around the world since ancient times. The ancient Egyptians placed bee pollen in the tombs of their pharaohs to provide them with nourishment in the afterlife. Hippocrates, who has been described as the father of modern medicine, recommended bee pollen for healing. In Traditional Chinese Medicine bee pollen is recommended to increase energy and stamina, to strengthen the immune system, to speed recovery after illness and to stimulate the metabolism and enhance the libido.
The exact constituents of bee pollen vary depending on from which plants the pollen has been collected, the time of year, the time of day and from one colony to another. No two samples of pollen will be exactly the same. Bee pollen has been found to contain a diverse array of nutritional components. The macronutrient profile consists of approximately 55% carbohydrates, 35% protein, 2% fatty acids, 3% minerals with the remaining 5% being made up wide range of components including biotin, beta-carotene and antioxidants especially valuable flavanoids (1).
Health Benefits of Bee Pollen
There are many reasons to include bee pollen in your diet. Bee pollen has been ascribed with anti-proliferative and anti-angiogenic properties – both of which indicate that it may reduce growth of cancer cells and tumours. Bee pollen has also been ascribed with having anti-allergenic and free radical scavenging activities with strong antioxidant effects (2,3) and possibly some anti-microbial activity (4).
The strong antioxidant effect comes from the phenolic compounds including quercetin, flavones, and phenylpropanoids such as caffeic acid (5). Research has found that bee pollen appears to modulate antioxidant enzymes in the liver and brain and in particular, reduces hepatic lipid peroxidation, meaning it stops the fats in the liver from causing cell damage (5). The researchers conclude that bee pollen is a significant source of compounds with health protective potential and antioxidant activity (5)
A study investigating the use of bee products by German bee keepers found that the bee keepers used bee pollen as a prophylactic to protect themselves against illness and disease. Some also used it for treating prostate disorders (2). No adverse experiences were reported.
Let’s look in more detail at the benefits of bee pollen:
The Immune System and Inflammation
Chickens fed bee pollen as part of their diet developed larger thymus glands and spleens than the control group (6). The thymus gland and spleen are both important parts of the immune system. The thymus is responsible for producing immune cells called T-cells. It is particularly important in new born babies. The spleen filters the blood looking for foreign bodies and old red blood cells. It also synthesizes antibodies. In short it helps to prevent us from getting sick. The effect of bee pollen on these organs indicates that it may be beneficial for improving the functioning of the immune system.
Bee pollen has been found to reduce allergic reactions through an inhibitory effect on aspects of the immune system that are responsible for allergic reactions (7). In other words it may moderate the immune system’s response to harmless substances. It is not clear which specific components of bee pollen exert the anti-allergic effect, it seems to be a matter of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Inflammation is at the heart of many diseases and symptoms including arthritis, atherosclerosis, auto-immune disorders, inflammatory bowel disorders, eczema, asthma, acne and general aches and pains. Bee pollen shows potent anti-inflammatory activity that may be attributed, at least in part, to the flavanoids it contains (8). This makes bee pollen a potentially useful addition to the diet of anyone with an inflammatory disorder.
Bee pollen has been shown to reduce chromosome damage induced by cancer drugs. This indicates that it may be a safe chemo-protective or chemo-preventive food supplement. The same researchers also found that bee pollen has no negative effect on the genes nor is it oestrogenic. (9)
Loss of bone in the ageing population is recognized as a major public health problem that is likely to affect most people as they age. Bone loss is caused by decreased bone formation and increased bone resorption. Bee pollen appears to stimulate bone building indicating that it may be useful in the prevention of bone loss in the elderly or other high risk groups (10).
Patients given honey and bee pollen in combination experienced decreased total cholesterol and decreased LDL cholesterol (11). High cholesterol, and in particular high levels of LDL cholesterol, can lead to the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, which in turn can cause problems with blood flow and an increased risk of suffering from angina, heart attack, strokes and Transient Ischaemic Attacks (TIAs).
Bee pollen is particularly useful as a tonic for the elderly or to ameliorate the effects of ageing (4). One mechanism for this involves a substance called lipofuscin. The accumulation of lipofuscin is associated with ageing or wear and tear of various vital body parts including the liver, kidneys, heart, adrenal glands and nerve cells. The build up of lipofuscin is a major risk factor for the development of various disease states including neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and macular degeneration, a common problem in the elderly that leads to loss of vision. The good news is that mice fed bee pollen showed markedly reduced lipofuscin levels in the heart, liver, brain and adrenal glands indicating an anti-aging effect of bee pollen (12).
Those taking warfarin and other blood thinning medications should consult with their medical specialist before taking bee pollen (13). Bee pollen may not be suitable for those with atopic allergies such as hay fever or asthma as there is some risk that they could experience anaphylaxis from ingestion of antigens in pollens to which they are sensitive (14).
How to Use Bee Pollen
Bee pollen is sweet tasting and nutritious so use it to enhance the flavour and health benefits of smoothies and juices. Sprinkle it onto breakfast cereals or into yoghurt. Add it to raw food treats and desserts.
Bee Pollen Grains Recipes
Bee Pollen Salad
250g/8oz of mixed salad leaves
1 cup of cherry tomatoes, halved
2 radishes, finely sliced
A handful of olives
3tbps walnuts, lightly toasted
1 tbsp French mustard
1 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp bee pollen grains
Salt and freshly ground pepper
A handful of nasturtium flowers
- Put the salad leaves into a large salad bowl. Add the cherry tomatoes, radishes, olives and walnuts.
- Combine the French mustard and lemon juice in a jug. Add the olive oil and stir briskly. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix well.
- Sprinkle the bee pollen grains over the salad. Add salt and pepper to taste. Scatter the nasturtium flowers over the salad just before serving.
Sweet and Smooth Bee Pollen Smoothies
1 cup of strawberries
1 cup of raspberries
1 cup of rice, oat or almond milk
2 tsp bee pollen grains
1 tsp Maca powder
2 tsp hemp protein powder
A few fresh basil leaves
Put all the ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth.
1. Chantarudee A, Phuwapraisirisan P, Kimura K, Okuyama M, Mori H, Kimura A, Chanchao C. Chemical constituents and free radical scavenging activity of corn pollen collected from Apis mellifera hives compared to floral corn pollen at Nan, Thailand. BMC Complement. Altern. Med. 2012 Apr 18;12(1):45.
2. Hellner M, Winter D, von Georgi R, Munstedt K. Apitherapy: usage and experience in German beekeepers. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2008 Dec;5(4):475-9. Epub 2007 Jun 30
3. Nakajima Y, Tsurumu K, Shimazawa M, Mishima S, Hara H. Comparison of bee products based on assays of antioxidant capacities. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2009 Feb 26;9:4.
4. Graikou K, Kapeta S, Aligiannis N, Sotiroudis G, Chondrogianni N, Gonos E, Chinou I. Chemical analysis of Greek pollen – Antioxidant, antimicrobial and proteasome activation properties. Chem Cent J. 2011 Jun 23;5(1):33
5. Saric A, Balog T, Sobocanec S, Kusic B, Sverko V, Rusak G, Likic S et al. Antioxidant effects of flavonoid from Croatian Cystu. Food Chem Toxicol. 2009 Mar;47(3):547-54.
6. Wang J, Jin GM, Zheng YM, Li SH, Wang H. Effect of bee pollen on development of immune organ of animal. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi. 2005 Oct;30(19):1532-6
7. Ishikawa Y, Tokura T, Ushio H, Niyonsaba F et al. Lipid-soluble components of honeybee-collected pollen exert antiallergic effect by inhibiting IgE-mediated mast cell activation in vivo. Phytother Res. 2009 Nov;23(11):1581-6.
8. Maruyama H, Sakamoto T, Araki Y, Hara H. Anti-inflammatory effect of bee pollen ethanol extract from Cistus sp. of Spanish on carrageenan-induced rat hind paw edema. BMC Complement Altern Med.2010 Jun 23;10:30.
9. Pinto B, Caciagli F, Riccio E, Reali D et al. Antiestrogenic and antigenotoxic activity of bee pollen from Cystus incanus and Salix alba as evaluated by the yeast estrogen screen and the micronucleus assay in human lymphocytes. Eur J Med Chem. 2010 Sep;45(9):4122-8. Epub 2010 Jun 9
10. Yamaguchi M. Regulatory mechanism of food factors in bone metabolism and prevention of osteoporosis. Yakugaku Zasshi 2006 Nov;126(11):1117-37.
11. Kas’ianenko VI, Komisarenko IA, Dubtsova EA. Correction of atherogenic dyslipidemia with honey, pollen and bee bread in patients with different body mass. 2011;83(8):58-62.
12. Liu X, Li L.Morphological observation of effect of bee pollen on intercellura lipofuscin in NIH mice. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi.1990 Sep;15(9):561-3, 578.
13. Hurren KM, Lewis CL. Probable interaction between warfarin and bee pollen. Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2010 Dec 1;67(23):2034-7.
14. Pitsios C, Chliva C, Mikos N, Kompoti E, Nowak-Wegrzyn A, Kontou-Fili K. Bee pollen sensitivity in airborne pollen allergic individuals. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2006 Nov;97(5):703-6.