Making honey talk

A biochemistry student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has been analyzing proteins in honey. Since proteins (for example, pollen grains, shown above) make up only about 0.1-0.5% (one to five parts per thousand) of the volume of a typical honey sample, the scientist developed a ground-breaking system to poke through all that honey and look at the teeny bit of protein that’s there. In the process, she and her colleagues developed a new way to identify the types of pollen and other proteins lurking in raw natural honey.

Effectively examining protein in honey has been a long-term goal for palynologists, the folks who study pollen. Their task is to identify pollen in honey in order to determine floral source. Let’s say that you are a honey packer and you need to confirm that some honey for sale by a commercial beekeeper is mostly buckwheat, for example, and not badly burnt foul-tasting bakers’ grade honey. (Really, the two are hard to tell apart!) You would send the sample to a palynologist. She would whirl the honey sample in a centrifuge to concentrate the solids, then cook the material in acids to expose the unique exine patterns of the pollen grains. Next, the palynologist mounts the grains on a gridded microscope slide and counts the number of clover, jujube, and buckwheat pollen grains. The last step requires the most experience – you sit immobile on a lab stool for hours, listening to classic Norwegian heavy metal band Miksha blasting in your ear buds, counting pollen dust that only a few dozen people on Earth can recognize. This service costs about $200.

So, here’s the breakthrough. Rocio Cornero, left, originally from Mar del Plata, Argentina, used “multifunctional core-shell nanoparticles, which are a concentration method based on an affinity bait covalently bound to a polymer nanoparticle. When applied to a protein solution, the nanoparticles rapidly capture, concentrate and preserve solution-phase analytes, which can be then measured with standard analytical methods.” I kick myself that I hadn’t thought of this first!

the Orbie MS

That’s still the easy part. It gives you a little bottle of solution-phase analytes. How do you analyze the analytes? You simply set up “tandem mass spectrometry using a Thermo Fusion Orbitrap mass spectrometer”.  Now we are getting somewhere. Tandem, of course means ‘two’ – like the tandem axles on your bee truck. The first mass spectrometer (MS) of this tandem setup separates the peptides (mostly pollen parts) by weight, then spits them into the second MS, which actually identifies the fragments. “Ah-ha!” you say. “Exactly how does it identify the fragments?” Well, not through a microscope in a palynologist’s lab. This new system is automated. However, you’ll need a reference guide that looks up and identifies the flying peptide chips. Rocio Cornero explains, “[we use] proteomic databases including Apis mellifera, geographically consistent plants, bee pathogens such as deformed wing virus, Varroa destructor, and Nosema ceranae, and plant pathogens. In order to ensure the specificity of the identified peptides, we applied a bioinformatics pipeline to compare peptide sequences to the entire RefSeq non-redundant database.” So, you need an instantaneous information delivery system (let’s call it a computer) and the entire non-redundant RefSeq, or peptide database. You’ll have to build your own RefSeq, or go to a a local RefSeq-builder. If there’s one nearby. I’d build my own.

If you were brave enough to read the previous paragraph, you noticed that the peptides (small protein-like molecules) that are identified include parts of bees’ knees, mites, and plant pathogens – all found in the original honey sample along with the pollen. (Should we tell our honey customers?) The pollen bits can identify floral sources that might have sourced the honey, but the honey sample also contains other peptides that can indicate which diseases your bees – and surrounding plants – are carrying! Now, I’m getting excited.

So, congratulations to Rocio Cornero and her mentors – Drs. Alessandra Luchini and Lance Liotta – at George Mason. This new method might be transformative. (See the abstract here.) Rocio Cornero hopes that the entire system will be available in a few years for beekeepers as an instantaneous, portable tool. The benefits could include identifying organic pesticides, bee diseases, pathogens, and pollen from flowers that made the beekeepers’ honey.

Rocio says that her father, a beekeeper, was her inspiration. He passed away this year in Argentina. Among the test honey which proved her system will work were two samples from her father’s bees – the last honey he ever produced.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Diseases and Pests, Honey, Science, Tools and Gadgets and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Making honey talk

  1. Oh boy, excited? You bet!!
    Certainly would be Interesting to sample honey from ‘Colony Collapsed’ hives, now wouldn’t it??


  2. “…from her father’s bees – the last honey he ever produced.” That gave me a lump in the throat

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Apiarist says:

    Hello Ron
    There’s more than one way to skin a cat. In the UK we have a national honey monitoring scheme ( which uses next generation sequencing i.e. DNA analysis, to identify the pollen types that predominate. It’s already turned up some interesting results – which pollens predominate nationally and regionally, the diversity of pollen in large cities (45 types from London for example) and the presence of pollen from cannabis and opioid poppies (!) in some samples from south-east England.
    In addition to surveying pollen they also do chemical testing and have published studies on the presence of neonicotinioids in 20% of samples following the EU ban on their use as seed dressings.
    My samples went off last autumn (fall) and I’m expecting the results shortly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment and the link to the honey-monitoring site. It sounds like a great system. I’m surprised about the cannabis and poppy pollen. Honey bees prefer concentrations of nectar-producing flowers but cannabis offers no nectar and the poppies aren’t likely in large unifloral plantings. However, when resources are scarce, they will take what ever they find. I’m guessing that those were gathered during the June gap.

      I hope that you’ll share your pollen results when they get back to you. By the way, what do they charge? I have pollen analysis in progress via palynological counts for my bee ecology research, so this is more than a question derived from curiosity.



  4. The Apiarist says:

    Hi Ron … all free 🙂 The NHMS (National Honey Monitoring Scheme) is coordinated through a government-funded research institute in Oxford. In the US the equivalent might be the USDA-ARS setup in Beltsville perhaps (though with a much more ecological remit in Oxford). The current goal appears to be surveying pollen availability, and changes over time presumably. They have been sampling 200-600 samples annually. I don’t know whether they are looking for samples from particular randomly-selected regions (a bit like the nesting bird surveys use), or if it’s a free for all. Clearly the samples, once collected, will be screenable for things other than pollen and neonics. For example, as a virologist it would be great to get an overview of the evolution of the DWV population at a landscape scale.

    Next generation sequencing is expensive for single samples. Barcoding hundreds of them and running them in parallel is (relatively) inexpensive. We use it for analysis of virus samples from hives newly infested with, or cleared of, Varroa.

    I’ll post something on my site once the results are in (next month?). At the same time I’m planning to do some old-skool pollen analysis to see how the results compare.


    Liked by 1 person

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