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.

Thumbnail image for food-safety-news-Vaughn-Bryant-honey-tester.jpg“Again, nothing,” he said after about 40 seconds, and substituted another glass slide with a smudge in its center.

“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.

  • teefko

    where do I fink list of the good honey with pollen?

  • Steven Lechner

    This is NOT newsworthy. If you are just figuring out that pasturization and filtration (required to get the USDA label) removes pollen then where have you been – living under a rock. Again, this is not news. I am wary now of any article that comes my way via your organisation and don’t know what it will take for me to reconsider and trust any “news” you send my way.
    Steven Lechner
    Busy Bee Farm
    Larkspur, CO

  • Pereillo

    The headlines do not quite match the article… however it is interesting for people not familiar with pollon studies. Based on the headlines, I was looking for answers such as:
    How would the pollen be filtered out? What does the absense mean? Why is that a concern? What would that do to the quality of honey? Or does it just prevent anyone from knowing what exactly is in it? What would “nonlegitmate and unsafe source” be?
    Thank you.

  • Yup, just like teefko, I’d be interested in such a list. Thank you.

  • Laturb

    ‘…If you are just figuring out that pasturization and filtration (required to get the USDA label) removes pollen then where have you been – living under a rock.’
    And your point is, Steven?

  • Chris

    Steven from Busy Bee Farm, are you kidding me.
    This article will usually reach the public which doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about pasteurization and how it affects the honey. Most people probably think it’s a good thing to pasteurize and filter honey, thinking it’s better. So in essence, you are saying most people live under a rock. sad quote.
    Hence, the need for this article. It’s wrong for you to say it isn’t newsworthy especially since they are just trying to spread good news to people to buy better honey, raw and unfiltered, which you harvest and sell. So, the article helps you in a way, but the comment you left doesn’t.
    I will make sure to never buy a product from your farm and to tell others not to.

  • Cliff

    Good comment, Chris, I agree with you…I’ll be sure to avoid products from/associated with Busy Bee Farms.

  • Augie

    Chris is right. Busy Bee is just upset because in a different article regarding the specifics of this study, they are called out along with many other national bottlers, for not having pollen in their honey. Any beekeeper will tell you that it isn’t possible for most of the companies on that list to get entirely US honey on the store shelf for what they sell it for…no beekeeper in their right mind would sell bulk honey for that price. Then tack on a cost to bottle, distribute, and a store mark-up. Something fishy is going on and this study is a step in the right direction.

  • Thank you Vaughn Bryant for this amazing study.
    Fifty+ years ago working in my family’s grocery store in Buffalo NY, I always noticed that honey was different from any other product on the shelf since it crystallized.
    When (cheaper than honey) white sugar was introduced, people moved away from honey, including understanding crystallization.
    Currently there is an aversion to solid honey on the part of the American consumer. Contrast this w/ Canadians who consume some 80% of their honey in this form. One more tidbit: We
    Americans consume somewhere between 1/2 and one lb of honey per capita, per year.
    In Europe it’s about 3 lbs. Contrast this with 15 lbs of chocolate,30 gallons of beer and some 150 lbs white sugar!
    (The latter is a large no. because it includes ALL foods with added sugar.)
    We beekeepers do need to see higher consuption of honey (and appreciation for the hardworking honeybee), but please note that we only produce 1/3 of the honey consumed in the US!
    I have been working with bees for 42 years and packing natural honey in what is now our 33rd year!
    I have been telling the story of ‘supermarket’ honey vs. natural honey for a long time now. It is great to have some scientific corroboration at last!
    We specialize in low temp, natural varietal honey from all around the US. We also made a decision early on to avoid imported honey and to support the hardworking American beekeeper.
    (I’m not so hard working anymore; only five colonies that produce comb honey for us).
    Visit us on Facebook or our web site. If you live in N. Calif. (Woodland), come visit us for our Open Houses Sat. Nov. 19th and Sunday Dec. 4th and try all of our products!
    Ishai Zeldner, beekeeper 800 678 1226
    One more: Beekeepers have the lowest incidence of arthritis (due to the bee venom) amongst the population. I have had many thousands of bee stings during my career!

  • Where can I get one of those pollen charts in the background?
    And what is the scale on the slide with the pollen?
    I could build a machine if I had the time and money. Or, maybe even better, I know some other people who could! 😎

  • In January 2008 I was on a statin and half a dozen other pills for blood pressure and blood sugar. I had dangerously high blood pressure, I was pre diabetic with an A1c over 9 and my doctor said my cholesterol was so high my blood was gravy. These terrible numbers were in spite of the handful of pills I’d been taking for years. I had an epiphany.
    I stopped eating any processed foods and refined sugars. I bought a beehive and a box of bees. That summer I started harvesting my own honey and have eaten no other sweetener since. Three months after I began eating my own honey my my A1c dropped to 5 (normal) my blood pressure dropped to normal and my cholesterol and triglycerides dropped to ideal levels. I have given up the handful of pills I used to swallow every morning and my blood work and BP are still excellent. My numbers are not simply OK or within normal limits, they are all ideal!
    I process my honey with a kitchen strainer. I still eat meat regularly (with plenty of fruits and vegetables). I use only butter and whole milk. I make lots of homemade ice cream and pecan pies from my honey. I lost 30 pounds and feel better than I’ve felt since I was a teenager. I’m 57 and we’re going mountain climbing this weekend (again). Real honey and real food saved my life. Read ‘The Omnivores Dilemma’ by Michael Pollan.

  • Zellie

    Today, my 82 year old Dad, and ‘used to be’ highly allergic husband and me, a long-time natural local honey eater drove 90 miles to our favorite honey producer in Rodgers, Texas…”Walker Honey.” Why do I insist we make this trip every 3 months? Because the honey is absolutely delicious, they sell it by the gallon, I take my clean and empty 4 gallon containers and stock up…I personally have NO allergies…when I met my husband 7 years ago, he was suffering something awful…my solution 3 doses of honey a day via 1 spoonful, morning, afternoon, and evening…you would be amazed at the results…this man was living on medicines, and now he is a RARE sufferer….we use honey in our coffee/tea, oatmeal, on our toast, in our grilling concoctions, etc., I have gifted this honey to all my 8 brothers and sisters and all of my husband’s family. I find the quality, taste, and price perfect and I am a loyal customer….I appreciate these articles and the other one on your site…this information is crucial. If I may something further….the Edgar Cayce Readings say that all of us should eat our food as local as possible, that is the only way to gain immunity and get acclimated to the soils in our areas…with all this mass transportation, importation of our foods and declining standards of the importers and the lack of oversight and testing from our own government, we are not doing ourselves any favors by not buying local….I will drive an hour and a half for my honey and enjoy every second of it…they have migrated to honey wines now, and boy did we have fun out there today….we love ALL of their products…my Dear Dad wanted one of their T-shirts, too…God bless the local caring bee keepers and their beautiful bees! Oh, p.s., I have lived in my house in Austin for 18 years and do not use any form of pesticides in my yard…it is my way of helping the little bees and bumblebees! I have the most beautiful trees, plants, flowers, etc., plus toads, walking sticks, preying mantis’, and even saw a hummingbird moth…wow! Not to mention all the other little critters of the day and nights…

  • Thanks to Vaughn Bryant for their study.I agree with the views of Ishai Zeldner and James Collins. The Pollen determine the colour,aroma,thickness and taste of honey. Honey is total food and has special medicinal properties. Ultra-filteration increase the cost of honey and decrease the quality of honey. Motive to produce Pollen free honey is wrong. In this process honey lose it many properties. Honey used with many Ayurvedic medicines to increase the power of medicines in India. Honey exclusive medicines for many diesase just like caugh etc. Crystal clearness is not quality of honey.Pollen shows the actual place where honey bees collect honey.It is the footprint of honey.Pure honey mean the honey produce by honey bees from blossems and plants kingdom.Honey have self preservative properties.

  • bang

    I hope readers will follow the example of @Zellie, who stopped using pesticide in her yard so as to help the bees. As a small time backyard beekeeper (5 hives) my biggest concern is the pesticides/herbicides that people spray on their lawn. These are harmful to all the little critter as well as the homeowners and their families. In addition the pesticide do get onto the pollen which the bees bring back to feed the larva in the hive as well as into the honey. One of the suspected cause of CCD (colony collapse disease) may be pesticide/herbicide.
    One more note, after starting beekeeping (4years) and consuming my own honey, I have been free from seasonal allergy (spring/autumn) for the last two years. I used to be allergic to ragweed and now the season does not even bother me. I live in nothern NJ.

  • nyc

    “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.”
    Anybody know why that would be?

  • Bob

    I’ll have to agree to a certain degree with the guy from Busy Farms…
    Pure blueberry honey contains no pollen. Don’t remember the reason for this but to evaluate the purity of blueberry honey, more pollen is less pure, less pollen more pure.
    I’m only talking about blueberry honey (to my knowledge it is the only honey with this characteristic), honey which been harvested when pollinating blueberry fields.

  • Robert

    BTW, for those who dislike high-fructose corn syrup – most honey is nearly the same composition as HFCS (50% fructose, 50% glucose, though the exact ratio depends on the nectar source).

  • sadserf

    Why not simply send a scope and slide wielding worker to the ports to collect lab fees, slide samples and import taxes before the said cargo comes off the ship? Problem solved. No money, no imported honey.

  • Cheryl

    Thank you for this article. I’m one of those consumers who must live under a rock. I even happened upon this article accidentally, while looking for info on something else. I’m sharing this information with all my friends.