On the contrary, bee pollen could be dangerous for those with allergies. This answer briefly summarizes
- What bee pollen is.
- Allergy sources and content in bee pollen.
- Case reports of serious health consequences for the allergic from consuming bee pollen.
- Paltry scientific record on purported health benefits of bee pollen.
Bees accumulate a wide variety of pollen as granules, bee pollen, in pollen sacs on their hind legs as they flit from flower to flower sipping their nectar. Beekeepers collect and sell these granules as health foods using screens at hive entrances to force them out of the pollen sacs when bees reenter hives.
According to one study, bee pollen gained popularity as a health food after Finnish marathon runners credited it with their successful performances in the 1972 Munich Olympics (1). In 1977, the Chicago Tribune and the United Airlines Mainliner magazine published reports touting bee pollen health benefits ().
Allergy Sources & Content in Bee Pollen
Plants can be pollinated by wind,, insects, or animals (both invertebrate and vertebrate), .
Airborne pollen from wind-pollinated plants such as grasses (ragweed, mugwort, etc.) are a major source of respiratory allergy. Marketing bee pollen as health foods relies on a misconception that they contain pollen from only less allergenic insect-pollinated plants. However, bee pollen sources are actually far more diverse and they contain pollen from wind-pollinated plants such as ash, oak, willow and poplar, often the source of allergens for those with allergic rhinitis (3).
- Pollinating mechanisms are obviously far more porous in practice than imagined in theory. Wind-pollinated trees serve as major sources of pollen for honeybees in early spring for instance, a time when insect-pollinated plants aren’t a major source of pollen ( ).
- Structural similarities, , between pollen from wind- and insect-pollinated plants render such distinctions moot making the latter capable of triggering allergy episodes in some allergic people.
With no international standard, bee pollen products are highly variable, with guidelines or regional standards only available from Australia-New Zealand, Brazil, Bulgaria, Poland and Switzerland as of 2015 (3). With variability an inherent feature of the ways by which bees collect, store and process bee pollen, as well as their sources, habitat and even season, it’s anyone’s guess what if anything could be done to standardize it.
Sheer amount of pollen in bee pollen could be why they’re reported to trigger strong allergy reactions and even anaphylaxis in those with common forms of inhalant allergies such as hay fever. A single bee pollen pellet might contain as many as 2 million pollen grains while one teaspoon of bee pollen is estimated to contain >2.5 billion grains. Specifically one study estimated 1 gram of bee pollen to contain ~0.4 to 6.4 million plant pollen, amounts sizable enough to trigger serious allergy attacks (1). Bee pollen is estimated to contain thousands fold more pollen compared to honey which helps explain its allergic potential (1).
Apart from pollen, bee pollen also contains bacteria, fungi, bee fecal material and insect body parts (1). Some bee pollen supplements have been found to have as much as 6% fungi such as Aspergillus and Cladosporium species (5,).
Case Reports of Serious Allergies from Bee Pollen
Fungi in bee pollen was found to cause anaphylaxis in patients with IgE sensitization to such molds (5,).
A review concluded bee pollen ingestion can be dangerous to allergic children (). Bee pollen can cause immediate systemic allergic reactions (1, , 3, , ) and even anaphylaxis (5, 9, ) in people with a history of allergy.
A study that tried to figure out what patients may be reacting to in bee pollen found ~67% of those with atopy and IgE sensitization to olive tree, grass and mugwort pollen reacted positively to bee pollen skin prick tests, implying the bee pollen they tested contained pollen from all these allergy-associated plants (1).
Scientific Record of Bee Pollen Health Benefits is Paltry to Non-existent
Few scientific studies have rigorously examined bee pollen health benefits and a few randomized clinical trials failed to substantiate athletic or health benefits (11,).
1. Pitsios, Constantinos, et al. “Bee pollen sensitivity in airborne pollen allergic individuals.” Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 97.5 (2006): 703-706.
2. Cohen, Steven H., et al. “Acute allergic reaction after composite pollen ingestion.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 64.4 (1979): 270-274.
3. Shahali, Youcef. “Allergy after ingestion of bee-gathered pollen: influence of botanical origins.” Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology 114.3 (2015): 250-251.
4. Keller, Irene, Peter Fluri, and Anton Imdorf. “Pollen nutrition and colony development in honey bees—Part II.” Bee World 86.2 (2005): 27-34.
5. Greenberger, Paul A., and Michael J. Flais. “Bee pollen-induced anaphylactic reaction in an unknowingly sensitized subject.” Annals of allergy, asthma & immunology 86.2 (2001): 239-242.
6. Popescu, Florin-Dan, and Mariana Vieru. “The presence of aeroallergens in food products: a potential risk for the patient with allergic rhinitis.” Romanian Journal of Rhinology 8.29 (2018): 11-15.
7. Martin-Munoz, M. F., et al. “Bee pollen: a dangerous food for allergic children. Identification of responsible allergens.” Allergologia et immunopathologia 38.5 (2010): 263-265.
8. Cohen, Steven H., et al. “Acute allergic reaction after composite pollen ingestion.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 64.4 (1979): 270-274.
9. Geyman, John P. “Anaphylactic reaction after ingestion of bee pollen.” The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 7.3 (1994): 250-252.
10. Choi, Jeong-Hee, et al. “Bee pollen-induced anaphylaxis: a case report and literature review.” Allergy, asthma & immunology research 7.5 (2015): 513-517.
11. Steben, Ralph E., and Pete Boudreaux. “The effects of pollen and protein extracts on selected blood factors and performance of athletes.” The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 18.3 (1978): 221.
12. Ulbricht, Catherine, et al. “An evidence-based systematic review of bee pollen by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration.” Journal of dietary supplements 6.3 (2009): 290-312.