Pollen Power – Brazil


June 2004

Pollen has been called the only perfectly complete food. It contains proteins, sugars and starch as the main constituents as well as various other substances, including several vitamins and minerals. The proprietor of Operarias do Mel recognised a gap in the market to supply pollen for use as a health and nutrition supplement, especially in the field of sport. Assisted by the B-REED programme, Operarias do Mel is now processing and selling pollen, using a hybrid solar-based drier that was specifically developed with the assistance of the programme.

Increasing Employment in Alagoas

Alagoas, the second smallest state in Brazil located just north of centre along the country’s coastline, has a population of approximately 2.7 million people. It is one of the poorest states in Brazil and unemployment and under-employment are high. These characteristics have been exacerbated by the decline of traditional rural industries such as sugar processing and a severe flooding disaster in 2000. Many migrants to the slums in Brazilian cities come from Alagoas and other impoverished states of northeast Brazil. Alagoas and Maranhão are the only states in Brazil with a United Nations Human Development Index below 0.65. This would put these states within the range of the world’s 30% poorest countries.

Despite some active state and government welfare programmes in Alagoas some people in rural areas have an income of US$40 or less per month. Brazil is not among the world’s poorest countries but it has one of the largest disparities or inequalities of wealth and the apparent economic improvement in the country has largely hidden the poverty that still exists in some rural areas and the urban slums.

In Alagoas there is then a pressing need for the development of new businesses and markets that increase employment and improve incomes. Pollen processing is one area where there is potential for increasing business opportunities. Brazil is becoming one of the largest honey producers in the world and by 1995 it was the fifth largest with a production of 28,000 tonnes. The northeast is becoming one of the leading honey producing areas in Brazil.

Opportunities for Diversification

Beekeepers can increase their incomes and security of livelihood by diversifying their products. Apart from honey, apicultural products for which markets exist include pollen, beeswax, propolis, royal jelly and venom. There would also be opportunities for other entrepreneurs to process these products further and to use them in applications such as soaps and cosmetics.

The Brazilian Rural Energy Enterprise Development (B-REED) programme has been assisting one enterprise in Alagoas, Operarias do Mel, to process pollen collected from beehives. The market for this product will initially be in Brazil but it is hoped to export the pollen as well in the future.

Apicultural Products

  • Honey – extracted from honeycombs from beehives. It is used as a foodstuff or food ingredient and an additive to cosmetic and medicinal skin creams.
  • Pollen – collected from bees as they enter the hive. It is used as a food supplement for health and nutrition and in medicinal skin creams. Bees also process pollen in the hive to ferment it and make ‘beebread’ that they consume when they are short of honey. This is also sometimes collected and sold.
  • Beeswax – produced by bees to make the honeycombs that store the honey. It is used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, candles, polishes, in modelling and metal casting and by beekeepers to make the foundations for new honeycombs in hives.
  • Propolis – a mixture of beeswax and resins obtained from plants and with which the bees build combs for larvae nurseries. It is used in medicines, cosmetics and as a food preservative.
  • Royal jelly – a substance secreted by worker bees fed in abundance to future queen bee larvae and sparingly to other bee larvae. It is produced by stimulating a hive to produce an excess of queen bee larvae and harvesting it from the cells of these larvae taking care not to harm the larvae themselves. It is used as an additive in foods and medicines or eaten in tablet form on its own.
  • Venom – extracted by applying electric shocks to bees that then release a quantity of venom from their venom sack. Its main use is to build up resistance of people who are allergic to bee stings. Claims have also been made for it relieving the symptoms of many illnesses and ailments.

Pollen: An Opportunity for Enterprises

When bees collect pollen from flowers they make pollen sacks that they stick to rear legs using nectar or regurgitated honey. This gives the pollen collected from bees its high sugar content. Pollen taken directly from flowers normally has lower sugar content.

Many claims have been made for the benefits of eating pollen but fewer have been substantiated scientifically. Claims have included that pollen improves athletic performance, reduces the effects of aging, improves blood disorders, reduces the effects of colds, improves skin conditions and counters infertility. The main medicinally proven benefits of pollen are that it improves most prostrate conditions and that it aids digestion of food and in this way helps people who are ill recover more quickly. However, it is also a particularly nutritious food that can help to counter the effects of an otherwise poor diet.

There is a small but growing market for pollen in Brazil. A Brazilian Government agency (SEBRAE) for the development of small enterprises is promoting apiculture in northeast Brazil. Producers from the state of Bahia have supplied most of the market for pollen in northeast Brazil, including in Alagoas. Operarias do Mel is the first producer in Alagoas and it is expected that the demand in this state will grow.

Operarias do Mel has been working with Instituto Eco Enghenho, the local B-REED country enterprise development partner, and E+Co to develop a business plan and assess financial projections for the business. The partnership identified a Brazilian company, Solartec, to develop a solar-based drier for the pollen. The company then applied successfully for a loan of US$27,000 to develop the business and market for pollen.

Operarias do Mel pay beekeepers about US$120 per month, about 1.5 times the Brazilian minimum wage, for the pollen from their hives. They have trained 10 local youths to make the collections under supervision. The youths get a small income from this and the time taken for collection does not interfere with their schooling.

Local youths in protective clothing preparing to collect pollen Photo - Instituto Eco-Engenho
Local youths in protective clothing preparing to collect pollen Photo – Instituto Eco-Engenho

Pollen Collection

Various designs of pollen collectors have been developed. Most have a trap, usually one or two screens with holes, which the bees have to pass through to get to the brooding colony in the hive. The holes in the screen are 4.7 mm diameter for European honeybees or 4.2 mm for smaller bee species such as the African types. When passing through the holes in the screen the bees lose some of the pollen attached to their legs. This is collected in a tray or box below the hive. The collector needs to be protected by a screen or mesh so that the bees cannot get in and retrieve the pollen.

Some precautions are needed when collecting pollen:

  • If fields within about three kilometres of the hive have been sprayed with pesticides, collection should be stopped for several days, at least.
  • If bees are treated by a powder spray against diseases no collection should be made that day.
  • Ensure that the holes in the screen have been accurately made and the screen well fitted. Bees are adept at finding the largest holes or gaps that reduce the amount of pollen they lose.
  • Pollen needs to be collected daily in humid climates and less frequently in drier climates.
  • Some of the pollen in the collector box can be lost to ants.

There are also particular times in the life of a hive when pollen collection would disturb the colony too much. A beekeeper would be able to advise about these.

Pollen Processing

After collection the pollen has to be prepared for the market by a number of processing stages:

  • Pre-cleaning, for example in a tubular tumbler made of wire mesh permeated by an air stream driven by a fan
  • Freezing, to kill fungus and bacteria
  • Dehydration
  • Aeration
  • Packaging.

Dehydration is an important stage, as the pollen needs to be dried from an initial moisture content of around 40 per cent to at least 10 per cent but preferably to 5 per cent. This is to improve its eating qualities but also to improve its preservation, as when dried the pollen will keep its nutritional value for longer. A temperature of about 40°C is suitable for drying pollen; 45°C should not be exceeded. A drying period of eight to twelve hours is usually sufficient.

Pollen will keep for several months at room temperature out of sunlight, for a year if refrigerated at -5°C and for several years in a freezer at -15°C.

Quality Control of Pollen

Only a few countries such as Switzerland and Argentina have legally recognised pollen as a product and established quality standards. The Argentinean standard specifies:

  • Microbiological characteristics of not more than 150 x 10° CFU (colony forming units) per gram of aerobic microbes, 10° CFU per gram of fungi and no pathological micro-organisms.
  • A moisture content of not more than 8 per cent, measured by vacuum drying at a residual air pressure of 45 mm mercury and 65°C.
  • A pH value between 4 and 6.
  • A protein content of 15 – 28 per cent Kjeldahl (N x 6.25) of dry weight.
  • Total hydrocarbons of 45 – 55 per cent of dry weight
  • A maximum ash content of 4 per cent of dry weight, determined at 600°C

Tray Drier Development

The solar heating unit connected to the tray drier Photo - Instituto Eco-Engenho
The solar heating unit connected to the tray drier Photo – Instituto Eco-Engenho

A solar-based tray drier was developed specifically for pollen drying by Solartec, a specialist Brazilian renewable energy technology company. This consists of heater and a drier. The drier consists of a glass plate cover and a graphite-coated collector plate. Air is circulated around the collector plate by a fan. Here it is heated, then pushed through the drier unit where the pollen trays are inserted. A liquefied petroleum gas cylinder is also fitted to the heater. This can be used to heat the air for drying during overcast days and at night. The cost of the drier is about US$650.

Heater unit of the solar drier Photo - Instituto Eco-Engenho
Heater unit of the solar drier Photo – Instituto Eco-Engenho

The Business Moves Forward

Operarias do Mel have established a processing plant in Coruripe 100 km from Maceió, the state capital of Alagoas. They have also increased production from 80 to 400 kilos of pollen per month. The company are marketing their product to pharmacies, supermarkets, health clubs, nutritionists, doctors, apiculture companies and co-operatives.

From a broader perspective the youths trained by the company to collect pollen would be in a good position to find work in the growing apiculture businesses in Alagoas. The solar tray driers have proved to be cheaper to run and install than electric driers. This alone is projected to improve cash flow of the company by 8.4 per cent. There is significant potential for farmers and other small enterprises to use solar driers in Brazil and this would reduce energy use from non-renewable sources. In general, the growth of apiculture will stimulate pollination of plants and biodiversity as well as local people to care for their plant ecology.

Acknowledgement

ITDG would like to thank Ms Lúcia Figueiredo of Instituto Eco-Enghenho for help and advice in putting together this case study.

Further Information

Relevant Organisations

Instituto Eco-Engenho www.ecoengenho.org.br

E+Co Brazil www.b-reed.org

Solartec www.solartec.com.br

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) www.fao.org

Books available from ITDG Publishing

Drying, UNIFEM Food Cycle Technology Source Book, 1995
Drying Food for Profit – A Guide for Small Businesses, Barrie Axtell & Andrew Russell, 2002
Setting up a Food Drying Business, Fabrice Thuillier, 2002
Try Drying It! Case studies in the dissemination of tray-drying technology, Barrie Axtell & Alex Bush, 1991
The Golden Insect, Stephen Adjare, 1984 (beekeeping)

ITDG Publishing www.itdgpublishing.org.uk

Other Relevant Hands On Case Studies

Bee Fair – Kenya
Smart Hives – Tanzania