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The specialist international beekeeping organisation
Pollen supplies protein to honeybees which is required for growth and reproduction. It also contains lipids, sterols, enzymes, vitamins and minerals, sugar, starch and cellulose. The chemical constitution of each type of pollen is widely variable and it is likely that honeybees require pollen from a range of floral sources to satisfy their nutritional needs.
Pollen is carried back to the hive on the third pair of legs of the honeybee, which are specially modified for this purpose. Pollen is moistened with saliva and nectar to make a small pellet, or pollen load, which is carried back to the hive to be stored. Only a tiny amount can be carried back to the colony at each trip (around 10 mgs per load) and bees need 20 kilograms for their annual development. It is clear that this constitutes a remarkable feat of social co-ordination by the bees - in fact this takes 1.3 million pollen collecting trips for the colony every year. Pollen is mixed with enzymes and nectar in a way that allows it to be stored by the bees for a considerable time.
Each plant has distinctively shaped pollen grain. Many plants have a characteristic colour and this, combined with the time of year it is collected, can be used to give an initial indication about the source of the pollen.
Measurement of grain size and examination of other features can be used to identify pollen grains under the microscope. This technique, known as melissopalynology, is most usually used to check the source of the honey to ensure consumers are not being misled about where the honey comes from.
People sometimes use pollen as a health food because of its rich source of protein, enzymes, vitamins and minerals. The pollen is collected from the bee by using a specially designed pollen trap placed at the entrance of the hive. This removes the pollen loads from the bees legs as they enter the hive causing it to fall into a collecting box. Pollen trapping cannot be done for prolonged periods as loss of their protein source has serious consequences for the health of the honeybee colony.
However, dust and spores may be collected as well as pollen, so collecting pollen for human consumption needs to be done with care. Poorly handled pollen has great potential for becoming mouldy and possibly toxic. Good sorting and freeze-drying facilities need to be available for pollen collection to be a viable business possibility.
Bees need pollen for: