Bee Pollen Identification for Increased Sustainability

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2019: $9,938.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Farmer
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Ryan Higgs
Blue Ridge Apiaries


  • Animals: bees
  • Animal Products: Bee Pollen


  • Animal Production: animal protection and health

    Proposal summary:

    The beekeeping industry has suffered from annual mortality rates in excess of 30 percent for many years. This is unsustainable not only for Southern beekeepers, but also for growers of agricultural crops dependent upon honeybee pollination. The causes for this trend are multi-faceted, ranging from varroa mite-related maladies to Colony Collapse Disorder. To a large extent, there is little that beekeepers can do to eliminate these problems, but rather the goal has become to manage these problems such as to keep them below the economic threshold.

    Given these circumstances, many beekeepers have focused on nutrition to counterbalance the adverse affects of these ranging problems. The "Bathtub Model" serves as an example for this approach. In this model, the bathtub is like a hive and the water that fills the bathtub is like the bees that fill a hive. The objective is to keep the bathtub (the hive) full of water (bees) despite the drain through which water (bees) is constantly being lost (in terms of a hive because a colony is consistently losing members as they die from shortened lifespans and common maladies). This is sustainable as long as water (bees) is being added to the tub (colony) at a rate that is equal to or greater than the water (bees) going out the drain (dying). Since beekeepers can do little to keep water (bees) from draining (dying) from the tub (colony), the motivation is to focus efforts on adding more water (bees) to the tub (colony) to replace what is being drained out.

    Nutrition (pollen and nectar) is the most significant factor in colony growth. Access to nutrition stimulates the queen to lay more eggs, knowing that the resources are available to rear healthy bees. Moreover, adequate nutrition results in healthy bees which in turn results in longer lifespans of individual bees. Collectively, both of these nutritional responses to abundant pollen help keep water in the tub despite that water continues to drain out.

    However, nutrition is not uniform across the spectrum. Different floral sources produce pollen with a range of protein levels. Accordingly, colony health is directly linked to the quality of pollen that colonies have access to. Research just published by NC State focused on this very subject ("Medicinal Value of Sunflower Pollen Against Bee Pathogens," Tarpy et al. Scientific Reports 9-26-18). Researchers showed that colonies fed sunflower pollen showed decreased levels of nosema ceranae, but also noted that these same colonies had a four times higher mortality rate than colonies fed buckwheat pollen. These nuances are only now beginning to be documented and understood.

    Herein lies the problem: There is no real time option for beekeepers to be able to identify pollens coming in the from the field, yet knowing this is critical to the health of our colonies as shown by this research. If beekeepers knew what pollens were coming into their hives, they could reference the nutritional values of these pollens and locate colonies near ideal pollen sources to maximize colony health -- to keep the bathtub full.

    Pollen identification is tricky. At present nearly all such work is done at the Palynology Laboratory of Texas A&M run by Dr. Vaughn Bryant. For $75/sample plus the cost of overnight shipping, the lab can identify samples that beekeepers send in with a turnaround measured in weeks depending on volume. This is not practical for the average commercial beekeeper with hundreds or thousands of colonies, and moreover, the turnaround time is too long to make beneficial changes in management practices since resources in the field are always changing.

    Our project proposes to research the viability of an in-house pollen identification lab to identify pollen in real time. Such analysis would provide beekeepers with valuable data that would allow producers to make correlations between various pollens and colony health, quick enough that management strategies could be altered in reaction.

    Bee pollen is an alternative crop in and of itself. Being able to identify, distinguish and separate bee foraged pollen by mono floral sources provides a new and profitable sustainable marketing opportunity. Pharmaceutical companies offer premium prices for such mono floral pollens for the production of allergy related medications. Part of our project will explore this opportunity.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The project will begin with collecting pollen via existing pollen traps. We will choose 24 colonies from three different locations to collect pollen from for the purposes of this project. Having multiple locations will lead to a greater diversity of pollens. Pollen collection will last for 16 weeks which correlates to the beginning of reliable pollen availability in early March to the pollen death at the end of June when taking pollen from colonies can be detrimental to colony health. Harvesting will be scheduled for multiple times per week in an effort to limit the number of pollens present, thereby aiding in separation and identification.

    Once harvested, the pollen will be placed in a freezer for a minimum of 24 hours, dried using a pollen dryer, and cleaned using a seed cleaner. Next the individual bee pollen pellets will be separated by color with each color representing a different floral source. Representative samples of each color will be ground in a food processor and used to prepare individually stained slides. Slides will be examined under a microscope, digitally photographed and uploaded to a computer so as to create a working database of pollen images. These images will be compared to SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) images in reference books to find a match since each pollen has it's own distinct "fingerprint." If a match cannot be found, images will be cross-referenced with our collaborators' collections. Once identifications are made, dates, locations, empirical descriptions of the pollen will be catalogued. These identifications can be cross referenced with databases of known nutritional analysis of various pollens to aid in making management decisions that relate to colony health.

    Once mono floral pollens have been separated and positively identified, this alternative crop can be marketed to pharmaceutical companies in an effort to create a new and sustainable revenue stream for producers.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.