COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Vaughn Bryant peered through the eye piece of his microscope, making infinitesimally small adjustments on the position of the slide beneath the lens.
“Nothing,” he said, and switched the slide for another.
“OK. We’ve got clover. Some nice cherry, plum and rose.”
Moving the slide a bit, the professor of anthropology and director of Texas A&M’s palynology research laboratory added:
“I see some blackberry, a couple of birch. Looks like a good Northwest collection.”
Bryant was not looking at the makings of a dessert or a salad. He was analyzing some of the more than 60 samples of honey that Food Safety News bought in grocery stores, at farmers markets and in big box, natural food and drug stores across the country.
The results of Bryant’s analysis, which Food Safety News paid for, found that more than 75 percent of honey sold in the U.S. has had its pollen filtered out.
The food safety divisions of the World Health Organization, the European Commission and dozens of others have ruled that without pollen there is no way to determine whether the honey came from legitimate and safe sources.
Food Safety News asked Bryant to look for pollen because that’s what palynologists do. But Bryant is also a melissopalynologist, which means he also specializes in the study of pollen in honey.
The professor entered the sticky world of honey in 1976, when he was asked by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S.Department of Agriculture to examine domestic honey purchased by the federal government as part of its farm subsidy program, so U.S. beekeepers would have a stable outlet for their honey.
He refined the analytical protocol he would use as he went along, diluting small amounts of honey, then washing them in various acids, some very volatile. Then he heated, washed, centrifuged, rewashed, treated with more acid, heated and centrifuged them one last time. The acids destroys everything in the honey but pollen.
He inspected a wide range of government-supplied samples and, in 94 percent of the cases, found pollen that was linked to nectar sources from the U.S. But 6 percent of the samples showed that foreign honey, mostly from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, was being sold back to the government fraudulently.
Today, half of Bryant’s work involves forensic pollen studies; another 25 percent involves archaeological sites and the rest is pure pollen and honey research.
There are 250,000 different plants just in the United States that can be used by a honey bee, Bryant said. He can easily identify hundreds of the more common pollens on sight. In his lab, two walls are covered with huge charts of enlarged grains of pollen. In the next room, another wall holds cabinets that contain a $2 million collection of slide-out trays cataloguing 20,000 modern pollen samples from around the world, mostly donated by oil companies.
Since much of his work may involve honey products transshipped from China he has worked hard to get samples and reference material on Asia honey and pollen.
“So I’ve got every Chinese pollen book that I can get my hands on that shows me the pollen types that exist in China and neighboring countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Taiwan,” he said.
This type of pollen analysis at the few labs in Europe that offer it can run $1,200 per sample or more according to honey packers who use the service. Bryant often charges far less than $100 for his basic pollen identification. That’s “barely enough to cover chemicals and supplies,” especially when he’s doing it as a service for mom-and-pop-sized beekeepers and honey packers, he said.
His customers are honey importers who want to know whether they’re really getting what they’re paying for from foreign suppliers and beekeepers who send him samples, so they can track what their bees are harvesting and what they can accurately say on their honey’s labels.
The 71-year-old professor also does forensic work for several federal investigatory agencies mostly involved with anti-terrorism and anti-smuggling efforts. He refuses to discuss any of this work for those clients.
“I am concerned about the import of unsafe products and about the government’s apparent apathy towards trying to put a stop to the illegal importation of honey,” Bryant said.
“I feel my efforts are helping to fight this battle.”
Sometimes his pollen analyses are just fun.
Bryant was asked to analyze the honey produced and served by the White House to determine where the bees are sourcing their pollen. Bryant concluded that the White House honey is classified as a unifloral clover honey, but also contains minor amounts of nectar from other nearby sources, including dogwoods, honeysuckles and magnolia.
Pollen and history
About 70 years ago, before radio-carbon dating, Bryant explained, archaeologists were originally using pollen collected from their artifacts to attempt to confirm the age of their discoveries. Geologists started collecting fossil pollen from deep underground looking for sediment in various strata, dried up lake beds and other geological sites that have repeatedly been shown to be likely sites of oil and gas reserves.
Pollen specialists have been recruited by leading museums and art galleries to authenticate the source of furniture, painting and sculptures.
One of the earliest well-publicized studies was of the microscopic grains of pollen collected from the Shroud of Turin in the mid-70s by botanist and Swiss criminologist Max Frei. Frei’s analysis had identified pollen spores of 58 different plants, many that originated only in and around the site of the crucifixion.
Forensic palynology – the identification of ancient and modern pollen to solve crimes – developed slowly.
One of the earliest cases of using technology to catch a criminal was in 1959, when Austrian police tried to tie a suspect to a man reported missing while on a trip along the Danube River, Bryant said.
The missing man’s body had not been recovered but police believed the suspect had a motive for the crime. Mud found on the suspect’s boots was analyzed by a palynologist from the University of Vienna. He identified several common tree pollens but also a unique fossil grain of hickory — a precise mixture of pollen that was only found in one small area along the Danube. The revelation of this information by police so spooked the suspect that he confessed and showed police where he had buried the body.
Scientific and criminology journals show that detection and identification of pollen has been used in cases ranging from kidnapping, rape, homicide, smuggling, counterfeiting, wildlife violations, terrorism and a litany of other themes in waiting-to-be-written crime novels.
Bryant continues to run his mostly one-person CSI operation but he says the government needs to do more.
“We must get our government to test samples — not just the paperwork on imported honey – but actually look at the honey itself,” he said.
He also believes the government must impose “truth in labeling” for honey.
“Most other countries do this, so why don’t we?” he asked.
“If people were certain they
were buying what is on the
label, I suspect they might be willing to pay premium prices. Right now it is a crap shoot.You may or may not get what it says on the label and that’s wrong.”
See “Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey” at Food Safety News.