Tell it to the bees

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  • Published: Nov 19, 2007
  • Author: Jon Evans
  • Channels: Detectors
thumbnail image: Tell it to the bees

Bee-collected pollen may be the latest thing in nutritional supplements, but can it really provide any health benefits? To help find out, Chinese chemists have employed capillary electrophoresis (CE) and amperometric detection (AD) to determine the levels of phenolic compounds in bee-collected pollen, finding that these levels differ widely depending on the source of the pollen.

Over the past few years, bee-collected pollen has become an increasingly popular nutritional supplement, with producers and proponents making some pretty wild claims about the substance and its supposed effects. These include that pollen is 'nature's most perfect food', contains the richest source of protein known to science and provides a range of therapeutic benefits, such as protecting the cardiovascular system, boosting the immune system and improving digestion.

Some national regulatory authorities have taken exception to these claims, arguing that there is no scientific basis for them. For example, the US Food and Drug Administration allows bee-collected pollen to be sold as a food, as long as the manufacturers don't make any specific nutritional or therapeutic claims for it. However, regulatory authorities in other countries, such as China and Germany, have classified bee-collected pollen as a medicine.

Like any other natural substance, bee-collected pollen contains a wide range of different compounds, including numerous amino acids, vitamins, enzymes and minerals. However, if bee-collected pollen does have any specific therapeutic effects, they are likely to be due to the presence of phenolic compounds like hesperidin, chrysin and vanillic acid, which are known dietary anti-oxidants. Indeed, one study has purportedly shown that bee-collected pollen can reduce the levels of lipid oxidation products in rats, with the effects attributed to the action of phenolic compounds.

But little is known about the specific phenolic compounds present in bee-collected pollen. So a team of chemists from East China Normal University, Shanghai, led by Jiannong Ye, decided to develop a CE-based method to detect and measure 15 different phenolic compounds in samples of bee-collected pollen.

As phenolic compounds can readily be electrochemically oxidised, Ye and his team decided to utilise AD with their CE method. This detection technique works by recording the change in electric current produced by the oxidation or reduction of organic molecules at a special electrode.

After optimising the pH and concentration of the separation buffer and the applied voltage, Ye and his team found that their CE-AD method could separate and detect all of the 15 phenolic compounds in a specially-prepared mixture within 30 minutes. Furthermore, the chemists were also able to determine the concentrations of the compounds based on the heights of the individual peaks in the chromatograms.

Ye and his team then tested their CE-AD method on samples of pollen collected by bees from various different plants, including maize, pine trees and oilseed rape. They found that they could detect and measure the concentrations of 13 of the 15 phenolic compounds in all the pollen samples (there was no sign of either rosmarinic acid or caffeic acid).

This revealed that some of the pollen samples contained far higher concentrations of the phenolic compounds than others. For example, the chemists found that the overall concentration of phenolic compounds in rape pollen is over 40 times higher than in pine pollen. In fact, so variable were the phenolic profiles of the pollen samples that, according to Ye, they should be able to act as a 'fingerprint' to identify the source plant.

All in all, then, these findings do indicate that you might be able to get some kind of health benefit from eating bee-collected pollen, just as long as it's the right kind of pollen.

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

Now where's that pollen?

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