Bee pollen is the pollen collected by bees as they gather nectar from flowers for making honey. Like honey, bee pollen is used as a food by the hive. The pollen granules are stored in pollen sacs on the bees' hind legs. Beekeepers who wish to collect bee pollen place a screen over the hive with openings just large enough for the bees to pass through. As the bees enter the hive, the screen compresses their pollen sacs, squeezing the pollen from them. The beekeepers can then collect the pollen from the screen.
Bee pollen is very high in protein and carbohydrates, and it contains trace amounts of minerals and vitamins.1 It is used in a number of traditional Chinese herbal formulas and is sold as a nutritional supplement in the United States and other countries. Although it has been recommended for a variety of uses, particularly for improving sports performance and relieving allergies, little to no scientific evidence backs up any of the claims about the therapeutic value of bee pollen.
Bee pollen is not the sort of thing you will find in your everyday diet, unless you regularly eat the snack bars that include it. Tablets and some snack products containing bee pollen are available in pharmacies and healthfood stores.
Athletes using bee pollen report consuming 5 to 10 tablets per day. Tablets can contain variable amounts of bee pollen, usually from 200 to 500 mg. The manufacturer's recommendations may provide more guidance.
Bee pollen has been touted as an energy enhancer, and is sometimes used by athletes in the belief that it will enhance performance during competitions. However, there is no real evidence that bee pollen is effective and some evidence that it is not.2
Bee pollen is also commonly taken to try to prevent hay fever on the theory that eating pollens will help you build up resistance to them. When used for this purpose, locally grown bee pollen is usually recommended; however, be aware that it is possible to have a severe allergic reaction to the bee pollen itself. Other proposed uses of bee pollen include combating age-related memory loss3 and other effects of aging, as well as treating respiratory infections, endocrine disorders, and colitis. No scientific evidence supports any of these uses (see Safety Issues).
A few clinical trials have tested bee pollen's ability to increase energy or improve memory.
According to a 1977 article in the New York Times, two studies on the use of bee pollen to improve sports performance found it to be of no significant benefit.4 Unfortunately, it has not been possible to obtain copies of the actual studies on which this article was based.
Both trials were said to be double-blind and placebo-controlled. The first, performed in 1975, involved 30 members of a university swim team. Participants were divided into 3 groups and given a daily dose of either 10 tablets of bee pollen, 10 placebo tablets, or 5 bee pollen and 5 placebo tablets. In 1976, the same experimental protocol was used, but this time with 60 participants: 30 swimmers, and 30 long-distance runners. Bee pollen did not significantly improve performance in either trial. A third study on bee pollen's effects on sports performance, also difficult to obtain, reportedly found that breathing, heart rate, and perspiration returned to normal levels more quickly in track team members taking pollen than in those taking a placebo.5 However, reviewers criticized the methods used in this study. The runners may have known who was taking placebo and who was taking pollen, and this could have influenced the results.
The effects of pure bee pollen on memory have not been investigated, but clinical trials of a Chinese herbal medicine containing bee pollen have been conducted in China and Denmark. The improvements in memory seen in the Chinese study were not significant, and in the more recent double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study in Denmark, no improvements were found at all.6 The formula tested was only 14% bee pollen, so the results may not tell us very much about bee pollen's effectiveness.
Several cases of serious allergic reactions to bee pollen have been reported in the medical literature, including anaphylaxis,7,8 an acute allergic response which can be life threatening. The anaphylactic reactions occurred within 20 to 30 minutes of ingesting fairly small amounts of bee pollen—in one case less than a teaspoon.
The majority of these case reports involved people with known allergies to pollen.
1. Review of Natural Products. St. Louis, MO: Facts and Comparisons; 1995: Bee pollen monograph.
2. Montgomery PL. Bee pollen: wonder drug or humbug? New York Times. 1977 Feb 6;5:1,7.
3. Blustein P. Pollinated presidents aside, experts doubt value of bee pick-me-up. Wall Street Journal. 1981 Feb 12.
4. Montgomery PL. Bee pollen: Wonder drug or humbug? New York Times. 1977 Feb 6;5:1, 7.
5. Blustein P. Pollinated presidents aside, experts doubt value of bee pick-me-up. Wall Street Journal. 1981 Feb 12.
6. Iverson T, Fiirgaard KM, Schriver P, et al. The effect of NaO Li Su on memory functions and blood chemistry in elderly people. JEthnopharmacol. 1997;56:109-116.
7. Cohen SH, Yunginger JW, Rosenberg N, et al. Acute allergic reaction after composite pollen ingestion. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 1979;64:270-274.
8. Geyman JP. Anaphylactic reaction after ingestion of bee pollen. J Am Board Fam Pract. 1994;7:250-252.
Last reviewed August 2013 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 8/22/2013
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