Bees and Hemp!

Hemp Pollen Is Contributing to the Bee's Ecosystem

In Chapter 5 of American Hemp I talk about the effects of pesticides (such as glyphosate) on bee populations, and how bee colonies tend to thrive better in areas where pesticides aren’t being sprayed. The USDA states that one-third of our food relies on pollinators like bees, and since bee populations have been declining significantly, scientists are paying attention to the relationships bees have with plants such as hemp.

Since hemp doesn’t produce any nectar, it may be surprising to learn that bees are attracted to it. Honey bees, bumble bees, and many kinds of solitary bees use pollen as a food resource (it is particularly nutritious for bee larvae) and as more hemp is being grown in the United States, the crop’s pollen seems to be contributing to the ecosystems of bees as well.

Hemp has a faster growing cycle than most other crops (100 - 180 days); this means the crop can be a valuable source of pollen for bees during mid to late summer months—a time when the crop is flowering and when other pollen sources are scarce.

A recent study titled “Bee diversity and abundance on flowers of industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.)” was conducted at Colorado State University and was published in Biomass and Bioenergy last month. The researchers reported:

Hemp flowering in northern Colorado, where this study was conducted, occurs between the end of July and the end of September. This time period coincides with a dearth of pollinator-friendly crop plants in the region, making hemp flowers a potentially valuable source of pollen for foraging bees. 

The study looked at the bee population at the end of July and at the end of September and determined that an “abundance of bees”—roughly 2,000 bees and a total of 23 different bee species (genera)—were found “in the fields of flowering hemp.”

Since there are 66 different bee species that are native to Colorado, this means about one-third of all the species did gravitate toward the hemp fields for food.

Earlier research has shown that bees are attracted to the male hemp flowers, not the female, meaning they are attracted to hemp that is grown for fiber and seeds over hemp grown for CBD, and the Colorado study observed this as well.

As hemp production expands, the crop could potentially be a primary food source for bees, especially since hemp isn’t currently typically grown with the use of chemical pesticides.

“I think there’s a lot of questions that have opened up from this. Like, what is potentially the nutritional value of hemp pollen to bees?” stated Colton O’Brien, the entomology student at Colorado State University’s Graduate School who conducted the study.  “I understand hemp only contains 0.3% THC, but how does that affect a tiny, tiny organism? Is it the same standard?”

Well, that last question can be easily answered based on what we know about THC and how it becomes psychoactive.

A 2016 Colorado study called “Industrial Hemp as Forage for Honey Bees” collected the hemp pollen that was foraged by bees and took it to a lab to test its cannabinoid content:

Results indicated at total cannabinoid profile of 0.94mg/g or 0.09 percent by weight. A detailed profile indicated the presence of CBG at 0.20mg/g or 0.02 percent; THCA at 0.31mg/g or 0.03 percent; CBDA at 0.33mg/g or 0.03 percent; and CBGA at 0.11mg/g or 0.01 percent…Cannabis, although rich in pollen, is naturally nectar deficient and since bees need an abundance of nectar to produce honey they will be forced look in other places to find it. 

What’s interesting to note is that THC-A exists in the pollen, but THC does not. The reason why is because THC doesn’t exist in the raw form of the cannabis plant. THCA becomes THC when it is heated through the decarboxylation process. Once it’s heated, it becomes psychoactive. So technically, you can eat raw cannabis and there won’t be any euphoric/psychoactive effects.

As Leafly explains perfectly:

THCA has a number of known benefits when consumed, including having anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective qualities. But THCA is not intoxicating, and must be converted into THC through decarboxylation before any effects can be felt.

Jesse Ventura and I discuss the decarboxylation process in Jesse Ventura’s Marijuana Manifesto, and you can read more about it here.

Going back to how this would effect bees?

Quite frankly, I don’t believe hemp pollen would have any psychoactive effect on bees, especially since we’re seeing THCA, which is not psychoactive, in the pollen. I’m admittedly not a bee scientist, but taking into account we know about how decarboxylation works, this is my logical conclusion.

Since decarboxylation is the process that transforms CBDA to CBD, the effects of CBD also can’t be accessed in raw hemp pollen. Plus the other cannabinoids that were found in hemp pollen (CBG/CBGA) don’t have psychoactive effects…so although we might not have concrete proof that there is any benefit (or drawback) for bees to be exposed to pollen laced with cannabinoids, we can most likely assume that they probably aren’t flying around impaired or under the influence of THC.

Hemp pollen also contains CBG/CBGA — what is that exactly?

We know more about CBD and THC compared to CBG (cannabigerol), but we do know CBG plays a significant role in creating THC and CBD. Apparently, we wouldn’t have THC or CBD without CBG because that’s their chemical parent.

Cannabis plants produce cannabigerolic acid (CBGA). Then enzymes inside the plant turn CBGA into either THCA or CBDA (which will become THC or CBD after they’ve been activated through the decarboxylation process).

Since CBGA is evolving into either CBDA or THCA, there usually is less than 1% of it in its pure CBGA form in any particular cannabis strain. While we’re still learning about CBG, there have been some recent studies that have isolated it to show it has value in treating glaucoma and other conditions.

Is hemp pollen nutritious for bees?

Regarding O’Brien’s other question on the nutritional content of hemp pollen for bees, we know hempseed contains protein, vitamins, and other nutrients such as Omega3 and Omega6, but do these benefits get sequestered into the pollen itself?

Research has shown that pollen has “antioxidant and antibacterial properties” for bees and some studies have shown that honey bee health, development, and survival can be influenced by the quality and diversity of pollen they receive.

Overall, diet diversity seems to be a good thing. When bees aren’t exposed to a variety of pollen, they can become more susceptible to viruses. A study published by the British Royal Society in February 2019 showed that when honey bees have “higher-quality pollen diets” they’re receiving “significantly higher iron and calcium content,” which helps to “buffer” them from “stress in their environment, including disease and pesticide exposure.” High-quality diets are defined as either 1.) polyfloral pollen (multiple types of flowers) or 2.) high-quality single-source pollen (such as clover, oilseed rape, pear, and almond). While we’ll have to see if specific hemp-pollen-bee-nutrition studies develop, O’Brien’s research showed that one-third of all the bee species in Colorado essentially survived off of hemp pollen during months when they would normally lack access to their primary source of nutrition.

We also know that hemp isn’t the only plant that contains cannabinoids and pollen. Bees have already been exposed to pollen with cannabinoid content…and in some instances, they even make honey from these plants. Read the next blog post to find out more.