Honey bees produce many remarkable substances but one of the most intriguing is something called “royal jelly”. Produced by worker bees, this special secretion has long been understood to play an important role in bee development. In the past, royal jelly was believed to be what makes a queen bee. Yet, some researchers are questioning this long held idea. Only time and more research will tell if the true role of royal jelly was misunderstood for hundreds of years.
Beekeeping has a scientific component that any savvy beekeeper becomes aware of early on. Understand bee anatomy and biology helps us understand how the colony works. This in turn makes hive management easier.
How Honey Bees Produce Royal Jelly
The production of royal jelly is of great interest to beekeepers as it is an indicator of colony health. As with many other important hive tasks, it is the role of worker bees to produce this nutritious substance.
Worker bees between the age of 5 days and 15 days are the best producers. These are the members of the hive that serve as nurse bees.
As the name would imply, nurse bees are in charge of caring for the developing larvae. Adults of this age have the most developed hypopharyngeal glands (also called brood food glands).
Located in the head of the honey bee – these tiny glands produce several types of brood food – one of which is what we call royal jelly.
Only well-fed worker bees become good producers of brood food compositions. This works in the same way as well-fed worker bees are the best wax producers. Healthy colonies do better in all activities.
Why Do Honey Bees Make Royal Jelly?
Interestingly, the brood food mixture fed to young bee larvae is not always the same. All larvae receive a bit of royal jelly in the beginning.
As the bee egg transforms into a tiny c shaped larvae its cell is provisioned with nutritious royal jelly for at least the first 3 days. After that period, most larvae consume a mixture of royal jelly, honey and bee bread.
However, the larval diet also depends on the destiny of the developing bee. If the colony needs a new queen, several female larvae (from fertilized eggs) will be fed a special diet.
It is the quality and quantity of this diet that causes the larva to develop into a queen bee instead of a non-reproductive worker.
For years, it was believed that those bees destined to become queen were fed only royal jelly. Hence, the word “royal” in the description.
However, in recent years – studies indicate that it may not be an exclusive diet of royal jelly that makes a queen – a queen. This remains a debatable topic in beekeeping circles and research continues.
And this does not less the importance of royal jelly production for a healthy honey bee colony. It is an important part of what honey bees eat whether you are referring to young larva or an adult queen bee.
Composition of Royal Jelly
Royal jelly is an incredibly complex substance that contains a variety of nutrients and compounds. One of the difficulties in defining the composition of royal jelly is that some of these compounds are still poorly understood.
As with many natural substances, it contains a large portion of water. It also contains various enzymes, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and lipids.
You will also find various hormones and factors that affect growth in royal jelly. Perhaps, this too plays a part in queen or worker development.
However, it is important to note that the exact composition of royal jelly can vary a bit. Factors such as the species or type of honey bees, worker ages and even environmental conditions have an effect on the chemical composition.
Harvesting Royal Jelly
Most hobby beekeepers will not likely be involved in harvesting royal jelly. It is a delicate process and great care must be taken to avoid harming the colony.
Obviously, the bees need it for a reason and taking too much could create great stress for the hive and a lack of nutrition.
Why Humans Value Royal Jelly
As with many aspects of honey bee life, humans have been captivated with this product jelly for centuries. While it’s primary role in the hive involves the role of developing larvae and queen production, humans have explored its application as a dietary supplement and natural remedy.
- diverse array of nutrients – proteins, amino acids, vitamins, minerals etc
- good for skin health
- immune system support
- provides energy and vitality
- brain health and cognitive function
- anti-inflammatory effects
It is the young worker honey bees that are the best producers of royal jelly. They function as nurse bees and are responsible for feeding developing larvae.
Royal jelly is usually harvested by beekeepers using special frames with small cups. Harvesting can be done responsibly to cause minimal disruption to the colony and only take the excess product.
Royal jelly is completely different from honey, propolis or beeswax. Honey is made from plant nectar, propolis originates from collected plant resin and beeswax is produced from wax glands. Royal jelly is produced by the hypopharyngeal glands.
Royal jelly is generally safe for most people when consumed in moderation. However, individuals with allergies to bee products should exercise caution. It’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating royal jelly into one’s diet.
The world of the honey bee is full of fascinating mysteries. Perhaps, this is one of the things that makes beekeeping such an intriguing activity for many of us – you will never know it all. Regardless of the role royal jelly plays in the colony, it is a very important substance that is needed to sustain a work force. For now, can we let it keep it’s status as queen maker until those with a much more scientific outlook can offer more clarity?