How Do Bees Make Royal Jelly?


Developing queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly

Among all the products harvested from honey beehives, the one that science understands the least is royal jelly. Sometimes referred to as “mother’s milk for bees”, royal jelly is absolutely essential for continuing bee propagation. Both larvae and queen bees would die without it.

What is royal jelly?

Royal jelly is both a glandular secretion and a food source. It is produced by nurse bees, bees whose only task in life is to raise young bees from larvae stage to maturity. Along the way, they also build special brood chambers in which eventual queens are nurtured.

Royal jelly looks a lot like mother’s milk. It is whitish in color and has the appearance of a pale cream. Nurse bees inject it into brood chambers in order to feed larvae as they grow. However, larvae do not subsist entirely on royal jelly until maturity. At some point, they graduate to nectar and pollen. Not so for would-be queens. They are fed royal jelly for their entire lives.

How do bees make royal jelly?

Nurse bees make royal jelly as a natural biological process. In the same way an adult female mammal produces milk and excretes it through the breasts, nurse bees create royal jelly and excrete it through special glands in their heads. There is not much to it in terms of function.

As for what is in royal jelly, the formula is pretty simple. Royal jelly is more than two-thirds water. It also contains proteins, simple sugars, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. That’s why it’s often compared to mother’s milk. It contains all the essential nutrients larvae need to grow into adult bees.

Larvae in royal jelly
Larvae in royal jelly

Does royal jelly determine queens?

Scientists have long believed that something in royal jelly determines which bees become queens. Conventional thinking allowed for two possibilities:

  • Nurse bees add something to the royal jelly fed to eventual queens; or
  • Feeding larvae royal jelly exclusively produces queens.

Research done over the last several years points to two other possibilities. One study in 2015 compared what queen bee larvae consumed as opposed to the food given to eventual worker bees. That study concluded that what makes a queen is what the bee is NOT fed as opposed to what it is fed. The thinking is that the nectar and pollen diet that follows royal jelly prevents worker bees from developing ovaries.

Another study done in 2020 seems to indicate that it’s the amount of royal jelly that determines the queen. The more royal jelly fed to a given larva, the greater the chances it will develop into a queen bee.

The reality is that science still hasn’t settled the question. Royal jelly is somehow connected to determining queens, but exactly how is still not understood. It could be something scientists have not uncovered yet. It could be a combination of the four current theories.

What is the difference between royal jelly and honey?

Royal jelly and honey are similar in some ways but different than others. The main similarity is that both substances are food sources. Royal jelly is food for larvae and queen bees. Honey is food for adult workers and drones. Both substances are produced by the bees themselves.

I have already discussed how nurse bees produce royal jelly. It is a fairly straightforward process. Producing honey is a bit more complicated. It starts with large groups of worker bees going out to forage for nectar. A typical honeybee can fill its nectar pouch in about an hour. It then returns to the hive to deliver its cargo.

At the hive, other bees accept the load by ingesting it into their honey sacks. A short while later, they regurgitate it so that other bees can ingest. This process continues until the nectar’s water content is significantly reduced. Meanwhile, enzymes in the bees’ bodies prevent fermentation.

Ingesting and regurgitation continues until most of the water content is removed. The substance is then put into honeycombs and left unsealed until most of the remaining water has evaporated. At that point, you have honey. Honeycombs are sealed and that’s that.

Both honey and royal jelly are critical to beehives. Royal jelly is like mother’s milk, produced by nurse bees to support larvae and queens.


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Photo credits:

  • Featured image (Developing queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly): Waugsberg – CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Larvae in royal jelly: L. Rusert – CC BY-SA 4.0

Anthony

Anthony is a content creator by profession but beekeeping is one of his great passions.

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