People often assume that bees make honey from pollen. This is untrue. Mostly, bees make honey from the nectar of flowers. However, honey bees occasionally use other plant secretions such as sap if it is sweet and enticing.
According to the FDA definition (revised February 2018), honey is “a thick, sweet, syrupy substance that bees make as food from the nectar of plants or secretions from living parts of plants and store in honeycombs.”
As you can see, the FDA doesn’t mention pollen, so honey exists regardless of pollen content. Unlike nectar, pollen is not a plant secretion. Instead, each pollen grain is a small protective package that contains male gametes, much like a sperm cell.
Pollen is a normal part of honey
Normally, honey brims with pollen, even though it doesn’t appear in the definition. This happens because pollen is small and sticky. As bees go about the business of collecting nectar, pollen sticks to their heads, legs, antennae, hairs, and abdomens. The same is true of bees collecting pollen and stuffing it in their pollen baskets. Pollen coats everything.
When these bees enter the hive and rub against one another, the pollen spreads to nurses and house bees who go about their business, spreading it further. It’s not surprising that so much pollen lands in the honey.
In addition, the nectar itself may contain pollen, even before the bees collected it. The pollen may have come from the same plant that produced the nectar or it may have arrived on the wind, blown in from a completely different plant.
Pollen is not a contaminant
Even though honey is not derived from pollen, we do not consider it a contaminant. Most honey is filtered to remove obvious foreign particles such as bee parts, bits of honeycomb, propolis chunks, dirt, and other insects. But unless we filter the honey with an extremely small mesh, the pollen remains.
Palynologists—those people who study pollen—can often determine the source of honey by identifying the pollen grains. In fact, this system has been used to recognize honey that has been illegally imported. If the pollen in a sample of honey comes from plants that don’t match the region, the honey may be misrepresented.
Pollen identification doesn’t always work
However, pollen identification has drawbacks. As I mentioned above, some pollen is blown in, having drifted short distances or many miles. If it lands on a flower blossom—which it is designed to do—nothing prevents it from being picked up by bees.
For example, if your honey contains corn pollen, that doesn’t mean you have corn honey. Grass plants, including all the common grains, do not produce nectar at all. That means your bees can’t make corn honey or wheat honey or oat honey.
Instead, your bees made some other type of honey that became enriched with grass pollen or cedar pollen or birch pollen. The amount of foreign pollen in your honey depends on how close your beehive is to wind-pollinated plants. Where I live, cedar and alder pollen blanket cars, porches, and picnic tables with fine dust. Surely that stuff gets in the honey.
Why do people believe the myth?
People believe honey arises from pollen for several reasons. In the example above, if you discover wheat pollen in your sample, you may falsely believe you have wheat honey that’s made from the pollen of wheat.
Also, many people believe that honey is an antidote to pollen allergies. I think this, too, has some people believing that pollen is the source of honey.
In addition, we humans believe what we can see. Because nectar hides inside the bee’s body, we only see the pollen. It would be easy to conclude that bees make honey from the masses of pollen they collect from flowers. I can easily understand that.
Pollen provides protein for bees
Even though the pollen in honey is accidental, it is still useful for bees as food. Unlike nectar which supplies mostly carbohydrates, pollen contributes amino acids and proteins to the bee’s diet.
Bees feed pollen to young larval bees as bee bread, which is pollen preserved with bee saliva and honey and stored in the comb. But the small amount of pollen in honey is useful to bees too, and both immature and adult bees benefit from it.
What is honey? Disputes past and present
Pollen in honey—or the lack of it—has caused debates among producers, marketers, distributors, and consumers.
Several years ago ultrafiltration of honey was a hot topic. Distributors who used ultrafiltration to remove every grain of pollen were accused of trying to hide the true source of their product. Consumers began claiming that if it didn’t have pollen, it wasn’t really honey.
The distributors countered, explaining that ultrafiltration is used to reduce the amount and speed of crystallization in their products. Although it is true that crystallization is aided by pollen grains, it’s hard to tell what their true motivations were.
The clamor died down once the FDA declined to include pollen in its definition of honey.
A past definition asserted that to be called honey, the bees must have used only the nectar of flowers to produce it. This eliminated so-called honeydew or forest honey that is made from sap that was collected and excreted by sucking insects such as aphids or lantern flies.
Today’s definition does not limit bees to collecting nectar from flowers but also allows other plant secretions. Whether these secretions can first travel through the digestive tract of an insect is not clear, although it is certainly interesting.
Based on the disputes, we may still be hard-pressed to say what honey is, but we know for sure that it’s not made solely from pollen. At least, that’s a place to start.
Honey Bee Suite
Accredited to Rusty Burlew
A bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies back my love of bee science. I have written extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. Since graduating, I’ve taken multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist. My master beekeeping certificate issued from U Montana. More here.