ROYAL jelly is possibly the most valuable (in monetary terms) product of the hive and has probably the most numerous and fabulous claims made for it.

It is the food of queen bee larvae and by feeding a worker bee larva this substance, she will develop into a queen rather than a turn into a worker; she will be a female bee that can mate; a totally different being from the worker despite the fact that they start out exactly the same.

For humans, royal jelly can be used as a food supplement or as an addition to cosmetics to enhance their curative properties (and certainly to enhance their price)! There are numerous stories of the powers of royal jelly and the part it can play in human health, but most are anecdotal. In one of his "Tales of the Unexpected," Roal Daal's character turned his baby son into a bee (or at least a black and yellow striped, hairy baby who buzzed) by feeding him exclusively on royal jelly. Amazing stuff! The medicinal and curative properties of the substance lack much clinical research, but what we do know is that it contains the eight essential amino acids, the full vitamin B complex, acetylcholine (a powerful neurostimulant), testosterone, insulin like peptides and an antibiotic component. And it can easily be produced by any beekeeper whether with one hive or with a thousand. This short article doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive "how to produce royal jelly" piece, but instead, asks what exactly is this almost magical substance? How and why is it produced? And how can the beekeeper start producing it?

Firstly, what function does it have in the colony? Why is it produced by bees? The answer basically is that it is all about queen production, an issue so vital to the propagation of the bee species that in fact all bees other than the drones (who don't have a father) are destined to become queens. At first!

One of the questions often asked by new beekeepers is: How is a queen formed?

The nature of honeybees turns this question on its head and beekeepers should be asking, "how is a worker bee formed?" because it is worth repeating that all female larvae are actually destined to be queens. Nurse bees interfere with the destiny of the vast majority of these potential queens by limiting their royal-jelly diet thereby turning them into sterile female workers instead. It is simply this lack of royal jelly at a certain stage in their development that creates workers. Queens stay as queens because the continued feeding of royal jelly stimulates the correct hormone production to fully develop their egg-producing organs. Recent research in Brazil has looked at when and how these organs develop for queens or don't develop for workers. The research found that all female larvae start off with the same reproductive equipment (and are otherwise genetically the same, too). The pertinent parts are the egg-producing ovarioles, long skinny subdivisions of the ovaries. To start with, larval workers and queens have the same number of ovarioles.

For the first 2.5 to 3 days, the situation persists. Worker and queen larvae mature in different cells but that makes little difference in their development. The important thing is that both get 100% royal jelly. So, they stay the same and are on their way to queenhood.

On about day 2.5, nurses stop giving larval workers 100% royal-jelly food and give them a mixture of jelly, pollen, and honey instead. The workers get much less jelly than the queens. Nurses continue to give larval queens only royal jelly. Over the next 2.5 days, the number of worker ovarioles dwindles.

On day five, workers and queens differ vastly in ovarioles count. Then, both worker and queen larvae spin cocoons and pupate (undergo several changes to emerge as adult bees).

Workers continue to reabsorb their ovarioles into their bodies through pupation. As emerging adults, workers have only about 10, whereas queens have over 100. With so few egg-producing ovarioles left, the larval workers largely lose the ability to reproduce.

Royal jelly is a milky-white cream, strongly acid, rich in protein, sugars, vitamins, RNA, DNA, and fatty acids.

How the jelly creates queens is connected with the production of an insect hormone. Royal jelly does its work through its effect on "juvenile hormone." This amazing hormone can, for example, keep caterpillars in the larval stage and prevent them from developing into adults. It puts them into an "eternal youth" state and keeps them there.

It is likely that lots of royal jelly changes juvenile hormone levels in maturing larvae so that females fully develop their egg-producing organs. The jelly seems to influence hormone level so that workers (who don't get enough of jelly) fall into an 'eternal youth' state but queens (who get plenty) don't and therefore mature.

How is it produced? And how is it used by the colony? The nurse bees are the royal jelly-producers and feeders as a normal part of all worker bee development. These nurse bees are young workers, usually around 3-6 days old. At this age, the worker bee has well developed glands that produce this brood food. The hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands from which the main components of royal jelly are formed, are located in the head of worker bees (See diagram).

The jelly fed to queen larvae differs from worker food because it contains more mandibular gland secretions in the amount fed. Queen larvae receive mostly mandibular and hypopharyngeal secretions during the first three days of feeding, and a 1:1 ratio of mandibular and hypopharyngeal secretions during the last two days of feeding. The mandibular secretions contain high levels of biopterin and pantothenic acid, giving 18 and 10 times higher concentrations than in worker food, respectively. The sugar content is important and is the principal feeding stimulant for queen larvae. Queens are fed food containing 34% sugar, mainly glucose, in the first three days. Now this is what actually happens. On the critical third day of larval development, the high feeding rate and concentration of sugars in the royal jelly stimulate the stretch receptors of the midgut in the larvae to release the juvenile hormone from the corpora allata, a large globular organ found on the sides of the oesophagus. As we discussed above, this release of this juvenile hormone plays a crucial role in queen/worker formation.

What happens if the royal-jelly feeding is interrupted or stopped? This never happens in nature. Researchers can tinker with such phenomena in the laboratory to better understand what's going on and from this they know that feeding more jelly to worker larvae results in a bee that's something in between (intercaste); neither queen nor worker.

But royal jelly isn't only a food for larvae. Royal jelly is consumed also by adult bees, including forages. Nurse bees transfer up to half their royal jelly to adult members of the colony, with younger workers receiving larger amounts of the jelly than older ones. By this stage, the bees are of course adults and no change could take place.

How can the beekeeper become involved? There is always a market for royal jelly and whether you are producing it for your own use as a health supplement, or want to go into royal jelly production for sale, it is well worth while adding this to your beekeeping skills. Any beekeeper who has reared his or her own queens will know how to produce it, simply because the initial processes are the same as those for producing royal jelly. These processes consist essentially of:

  • Ensuring that the hives that you use are bulging with bees.
  • Making wax queen cells or using plastic ones.
  • Grafting young larvae into them.
  • Letting nurse bees fill the cells with royal jelly to feed the larvae.
  • Removing the royal jelly before the larvae eats too much of it and before the cell is capped.

  • The queen producer will omit part 5 of this and allow the cell to be capped. Otherwise everything else is the same. The jelly is best removed with a small suction device available from beekeeping supply companies in the UK, although Chinese beekeepers who produce the bulk of the world supply use tiny wooden spoons and can remove it at an incredible rate. Royal jelly once extracted must be frozen or at least kept in the fridge until sold or used. Much royal jelly is freeze dried and sold in this form but there is a discussion amongst scientists about how much of the goodness is removed during this process. One piece of research showed that feeding larvae on reconstituted freeze dried jelly didn't work and the larvae didn't prosper or died. Others say that there is no difference and that reconstituted royal jelly retains its properties. Clearly this is an aspect of royal jelly production and sale that needs further research.

Nowadays, the availability of plastic cell inserts and small suction devices make production of royal jelly an easier and more viable proposition for all bee keepers even if you have just one or two hives. The one thing that doesn't change in either queen rearing or royal jelly production however is the need to adhere to a very strict timetable. Once you start the process, each manipulation must be carried out on time - otherwise the cells will be capped and you will be producing queens, or the larvae will eat too much of the jelly and it won't be worthwhile extracting what is left. It is a technical business, but one which can bring great rewards to the beekeeper, not least that he or she will learn a huge amount about what goes on in the hive and what goes on amongst your bees.

Before you start however, obtain guidance and an outline plan of the proceedings so that you will have something to follow which will increase your chances of success immensely.

There is an excellent and up to date book on the subject, which takes you through all of the stages of royal jelly production step by step. "Producing Royal Jelly" by Ron van Toor and published by Bassdrum Books Ltd is a guide for both the hobbyist with one or two hives and the commercial producer and the book is available from the Smallholder Bookshop. If you intend to add this extremely interesting aspect of beekeeping to your hobby, the book is a worthwhile purchase.