What is Bee Bread?
For anyone new to beekeeping, hearing that bees make ‘bread’ may conjure some amusing images. Can you think of anything more adorable than honey bees carting around little loaves of bread? Well, obviously that’s not exactly how it works. But one thing ‘bee bread’ has in common with human bread is its role as a life-sustaining food staple.
As forager bees wander far and wide collecting nectar, they collect pollen largely by accident. It sticks to their statically charged hairs as they busily buzz from flower to flower. The pollen gets mixed with nectar and is pushed down their bodies into their pollen basket (indents on their back legs) as they clean themselves. That’s what the colourful little packages on bees legs are.
For all their hard work, forager bees do not actually eat pollen because by that age they no longer produce the enzymes to digest it. Once back in the hive, this pollen is made into bee bread to sustain the young, growing bees that are the future of the colony.
How do Honey Bees Make It?
According to Scientific Beekeeping, returning foragers unload pollen directly into open cells located between the brood and stored honey. Then the middle-aged, pollen processor bees use their heads to pack it firmly into place, pushing out the air as well as adding more nectar, honey and glandular secretions. Other foragers then place additional loads on top.
Once the cell is about three quarters filled and well packed, the pollen processors then seal it with a layer of honey, under which it ferments into bee bread. And there is the thing bee bread truly has in common with human bread, the sourdough kind at least – fermentation!
It’s been assumed that the fermentation process makes the bee pollen easier to digest and more nutritious, much like sourdough fermentation does by breaking down gluten. But research has indicated that this is perhaps not the case. It is actually more like lacto-fermented foods (think pickles, sauerkraut), a food preservation technique used by humans for millennia. And like those foods, it does have probiotic benefits for honey bee tummies.
How is Bee Bread Harvested?
Being the illustrious producers they are, honey bee colonies can occasionally produce extra bee bread too. In fact, too much bee bread can apparently interfere with movement between the supers and the brood box.
If this occurs, you can cut out the section of comb, wrap it and freeze it for when your bees may need it. If you want to remove extra honey, place the piece on a queen excluder inside an empty super on top of the hives for a few days so the bees can clean it.
Harvesting bee bread for human consumption, on the other hand, has had a major research paper written on it, available here.
How Nutritious is it?
That’s right, ‘bee bread for human consumption’. Even if the primary purpose of fermentation is preservation, bee bread is still a highly nutritious staple of bee colonies. And, surprise, plenty of humans want to reap the benefits too. Supplements are now sold by many health food companies, alongside bee pollen, propolis, royal jelly and honey-based health products.
But how beneficial are these products for humans, really? Well, most of the evidence is anecdotal. There haven’t been enough studies yet to provide scientific proof. So at this point, we’ve reached the same conclusion as Refinery 29 did after they consulted a spokesperson from the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics about bee pollen:
“TL;DR If you want to experiment putting bee pollen in your smoothies or salads because you like the taste and texture, and you’re not allergic to bees, go for it. But if you’re looking for antioxidant or nutrient-rich foods to add to your diet, then you might be better off eating some of the better-studied functional foods that we know have those qualities…”
Mind you, the “anecdotal evidence” for the benefits of these products does go back generations. So, assuming you a) are not a staunch sceptic requiring double-blind scientific proof or b) don’t have a pollen or bee allergy, why not conduct your own experiment and try them yourself?