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Hive products - Pollen

Pollen is produced by plants to carry the male gametes for reproduction. The fact that these grains are transportable facilitates genetic diversity for the plants. Many plants rely on insects to carry pollen from one flower to another and to initiate the fertilisation process by placing the pollen on the female receptacles (referred to as pollination). Most of these offer the insect an incentive in the form of strategically placed nectar. Both insect and plant have grown to rely on each other for this service.

In addition to collecting nectar, bees also take pollen back to their colonies. Pollen contains lipids (fats), carbohydrates, free amino acids (proteins), minerals, vitamins and other substances. It is virtually the only source of protein for the honeybee and as such it is essential for the growth and development of young bees. Adult bees also use pollen towards the end of the season to develop the fat stores which enable them to survive the winter without foraging. It has been suggested that the quality of different pollens has a direct effect on the longevity of the bees feeding upon it at the developmental stage (Müller).

Bees forage for pollen much closer to the hive in spring (say 100 yards) (Wedmore). Pollen is carried by worker bees on their back legs in the corbiculum - a concave space, fringed with stiff hairs, on the inner side of the tibia or basal joint of the tarsus of a bee.

Pollen grains vary in size from about 5 microns (e.g. forget-me-not) to 140 microns (e.g. hollyhocks). They can be identified by colour, season and (more accurately) by microscopy. Bees tend to mix pollen with nectar or honey and store it in the combs around the periphery of brood cells. In this form it is often referred to as ‘bee bread’.

The study of spores and pollen is referred to as Palynology. The study of pollen grains in honey is called melissopalynology.

Photo by NAL

Solitary (and bumble) bees also use pollen as a source of protein. Here, the Red Mason bee, Osmia rufa, has laid eggs in beds of pollen for the emerging larvae to eat.

Pollen substitute

(from A Practical Manual of Beekeeping by David Cramp)

'When used at the right time, pollen substitutes can be a vital supplement for colonies. Start feeding them about 4 to 5 weeks before brood rearing commences, and keep feeding until natural pollen is plentiful:

1 part sodium caseinate (a readily available dairy derivative)

2 parts dried non-active yeast.

Sugar syrup to make a stiff paste (ensure that the sugar syrup is not fermenting, otherwise the patties will blow up).

Combine in a cake mixer or commercial baker's mixer if large quantities are being made. Fill small paper bags with the mix and, when you give them to the bees, open the upper side of the pattie bag.

Note: avoid the use of soya protein in bee feed.'

Health Benefits of Honeybee Pollen

By Piotr Jędrzejuk

Eat Drink Better - March 16, 2011

'For over two years I have been eating 1.2KG of honey on a monthly basis – I’m a huge fan of tea. One day I decided to cut my sugar consumption and replace it with something organic. The first and only substitute that came to my mind was honey. I decided to give it a go, and ever since then I could never switch back to sugar. I was able to taste the artificialness more than ever and was disgusted by it. I was unable to drink the tea and simply poured it down the sink!'

Link to article on Eat Drink Better

Hay fever sufferers have reported diminished symptoms by eating locally sourced honey. This is thought to be due to the presence of local pollens in the food.

Useful Pollen Websites

The Bristol Beekeepers have an interesting interactive pollen identification page on their website:


Wikipaedia has a comprehensive page on pollen sources with colour identification charts:


PalDat - The Palynological Database with many electron-microscopic photographs of pollen


Popweb - A guide to plants, pollen and ecosystems of Northern Europe


Science and Plants for School - Pollen image library


National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit at the University of Worcester


Coloured Scanning Electron Micro-graph (SEM) of an assortment of pollen grains. Pollen grain size, shape and surface texture differ from one plant species to another, as seen here. The outer wall (exine) of the pollen in many plant species is highly sculpted which may assist in wind, water or insect dispersal. This pollen sculpting is also used by botanists to recognise plant species. Pores in the pollen wall help in water regulation and germination. These reproductive male spores produced by seed plants contain the male gametes. Pollen fertilises the female egg, with subsequent formation of plant seeds. (Courtesy of Science Photo Library)

Further Reading:

Pollen identification for beekeepers, Sawyer, R (1981) University College, Cardiff Press, or facsimile by Northern Bee Books (2006). A companion illustrated CD of pollen images has been prepared by members of the Harrogate and Ripon Beekeepers' Association. Read more...

Honey identification, Sawyer, R (1988), Cardiff Academic Press.

Anatomy and dissection of the honeybee, Dade, H A (1962 and subsequent reprints), International Bee Research Association

The pollen loads of the honeybee, Hodges, D (1952 and subsequent reprints), International Bee Research Association

Pollen, its collection and preparation for the microscope, White, J (1989), Published by the author

Microscopy: First steps into a secret world, Winsby, R (1996), Manchester Microscopical and Natural History Society

Pollen analysis, Moore, P D, Webb, J A and Collinson, M E (1991), Blackwell Scientific Publications

An Introduction to Pollen Analysis, G Erdtman (1943), Chronica Botanica. Click here for FREE DOWNLOAD

Pollen Nutrition and Colony Devolopment in Honey Bees

By Irene Keller, Peter Fluri and Anto Imdorf

Part 1

Pollen is the honey bees' main source of several important nutrients. Consequently, an adequate pollen supply is essential to ensure the long-term survival of a colony and to maintain its productivity. Part 1 of this 2-part review focuses on the botanical composition of bee-collected pollen and its protein and mineral content. Further, we discuss the impact of pollen on honey bee physiology and assess the pollen requirements of individual workers and larvae.

Link to part 1 of the article on Agroscope

Part 2

The consumption of high-quality pollen induces the development of the hypopharyngeal glands in young honey bee workers. As protein-rich secretions from these glands are an important component of larval food, a direct relationship between pollen supply and brood rearing can be expected. Consequently, the availability of pollen is likely to be a central parameter influencing the development of honey bee colonies.

Link to part 2 of the article on Agroscope

What governs protein content of pollen: pollinator preferences, pollen-pistil interactions, or phylogeny?

By T'ai Roulston, James Cane and Stephen Buchmann

Pollen ranges from 2.5% to 61% protein content. Most pollen proteins are likely to be enzymes that function during pollen tube growth and subsequent fertilization, but the vast range of protein quantity may not reflect only pollen–pistil interactions. Because numerous vertebrate and invertebrate floral visitors consume pollen for protein, protein content may influence floral host choice. Additionally, many floral visitors pollinate their host plants. If protein content influences pollinator visitation, then pollinators are hypothesized to select for increased protein content of host plants.

Link to the Paper

Pollen nutritional content and digestibility for animals

By T'ai Roulston and James Cane

This paper reviews the literature concerning digestion and nutrient content of pollen.

Four topics are addressed in detail:

  1. The mechanism of pollen digestion by animals
  2. The efficiency of mechanical and digestive removal of pollen content by various animals
  3. Range and taxonomic distribution of pollen nutrients
  4. Adaptive hypotheses proposed to associate pollen chemistry with pollinator reward

Link to the Paper

Harmonized methods of melissopalynology

By Werner VON DER OHE, Livia PERSANO ODDO, Maria Lucia PIANA, Monique MORLOT, Peter MARTIN

Pollen analysis of honey, or melissopalynology,

is of great importance for quality control.

Honey always includes numerous pollen grains

(mainly from the plant species foraged by honey

bees) and honeydew elements (like wax tubes,

algae and fungal spores) that altogether provide

a good fingerprint of the environment where the

honey comes from. Pollen analysis can therefore

be useful to determine and control the geographical

and botanical origin of honeys even if sensory

and physico-chemical analyses are also

needed for a correct diagnosis of botanical origin.

Link to paper

Photo by NAL

Honeybee showing full pollen baskets.

Photo HBA (Vita)

Section of the basitarsus of back leg showing pollen basket hairs under microscope

Photo by NAL

Honeybee collecting the distinctive orange Dandelion pollen

Photo by NAL Photo by NAL

Hay fever sufferers use local honey to ease symptoms.

Photo by NAL

Individual grains of pollen can be seen on this bumblebee in a squash flower.

Many of our food crops (such as this strawberry) are pollinated by bees.

Photo by NAL Photo by NAL

Pollen Identification Cards

By: William Kirk

ISBN: 0-86098-263-7

A month-by-month practical colour guide to the pollen loads collected by honey bees. Each laminated card depicts 10 plants with additional information on the reverse.

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Click here for free download from the Science Photo Library

Preparing Pollen Slides - a free download courtesy of Mid Ulster Beekeepers' Association

Click here...

photo Science Photo Library

T'ai Roulston kindly gave permission for these two articles to appear on our website.

Honeybee carrying the red pollen of the Horse chestnut, Aesculum hippocastenum

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