The Hive Minder: Pollen Detective Sticks it to Honey Counterfieters

By Peter Audrey Smith (Wired Science - 8/16/12)

Vaughn Bryant loves to drizzle a little honey into his cereal. He’s not alone—the average American slurps some 20 ounces of the stuff a year. But Bryant’s passion goes deeper. The Texas A&M anthropology prof moonlights as a honey detective, helping keep counterfeit product off the market.

The honey trade has developed a top-shelf segment, with connoisseurs paying hefty premiums for certain makers and regions of origin. Sidr honey, made from the nectar of jujube trees in Yemen, can cost $50 a jar (about 10 times more per ounce than that stuff in bear-shaped bottles). Such prices have contributed to widespread honey fraud. Luckily, Bryant can tell if that Alaskan fireweed honey is just rebottled Sue Bee.

That’s because, in addition to being an anthropologist, Bryant is also a melissopalynologist, a scientist who studies pollen in bee products. He can ID a honey’s origin by analyzing pollen traces left behind by the bees who harvested the nectar. At his lab in College Station, Texas, he dilutes, centrifuges, and stains hundreds of samples each year, scanning them for identifiable grains of pollen. Because flowering plants vary from region to region and bees rarely stray far from the hive, the pollen print provides a sort of geocode. “When I start finding stuff native to the northwest in Florida honey, I know something’s wrong,” Bryant says. He’s been hired by importers, exporters, and several state agricultural agencies to determine where batches of honey originated. The pollen detective’s biggest case? Confirming that the bees residing at the White House did, in fact, frequent the flowering trees of the DC area. Sounds like a sweet gig.