How Do Bees Make Royal Jelly: Unveiling The Simple Secret

Developing queen larvae surrounded by royal jelly

Royal jelly is a special substance produced by young worker bees. They secrete it from glands in their heads, called hypopharyngeal glands. This nutritious jelly is fed exclusively to queen larvae and is essential for their development. It contains water, proteins, sugars, fats, vitamins, and minerals, making it a rich and vital food source that plays a key role in developing a new queen bee.

In the below paragraphs, we will take a more detailed look at this topic.

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 a unique substance produced by nurse bees in beehives. It is a glandular secretion and food source for bee larvae and adult queen bees. The jelly-like substance is a complex mixture of water, sugars, proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals, making it highly nutritious.

When a queen bee needs to be raised, nurse bees select a few larvae and start feeding them with royal jelly. This special food triggers a series of changes in the larvae’s development, transforming them into queen bees. Royal jelly is the only food consumed by queen bees throughout their life, allowing them to grow much larger and live longer than worker bees.

Production of Royal Jelly

Nurse bees produce royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. These glands are located in their head and produce the milky substance that they then transfer to the brood chambers where the larvae are raised. The production of royal jelly depends on the age and nutritional status of the nurse bees as well as the needs of the colony.

Composition and Health Benefits of Royal Jelly

Royal jelly is a highly nutritious substance that contains a variety of bioactive compounds. It is rich in proteins, essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Studies have shown that royal jelly has numerous health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-tumor, and anti-oxidant properties. It has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat a range of ailments from respiratory disorders to skin conditions.

Royal jelly has also been found to have positive effects on human health. It has been shown to improve cognitive function, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. It may also have anti-aging properties, helping to improve skin health and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

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 comprises more than two-thirds by mass of 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 in 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.

How Do Bees Make Royal Jelly – Conclusion

In conclusion, royal jelly is a glandular secretion and food source that is essential for the propagation of bees. It is produced by nurse bees, and it contains all the necessary nutrients for the growth of larvae into adult bees. While it is still not fully understood how royal jelly determines which bees become queens, current theories suggest that the amount of royal jelly a larva receives and the absence of other foods could play a role. On the other hand, honey is a food source produced by worker bees who forage for nectar and convert it into honey through a complex process of regurgitation and evaporation. While both royal jelly and honey are produced by bees, they serve different purposes in the hive. Overall, while royal jelly remains a mystery to science, its importance in bee propagation cannot be overstated.

Beekeeping Disclaimer:

Beekeeping, like any agricultural activity, involves inherent risks. It is important to understand these risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them.

Potential risks associated with beekeeping include:

  1. Bee stings: Honey bees are generally not aggressive but can become defensive if they feel threatened or their hive is disturbed. Bee stings can cause allergic reactions or even anaphylaxis in some individuals, which can be life-threatening. It is important to wear protective clothing and follow best practices when handling bees to minimize the risk of stings.
  2. Diseases and pests: Bees can be vulnerable to various diseases and pests, including mites, viruses, and bacterial infections. These can have significant impacts on bee colonies, leading to reduced honey production or even colony collapse. It is important to monitor hives regularly and take appropriate measures to prevent and treat diseases and pests.
  3. Weather conditions: Extreme weather conditions, such as drought or cold temperatures, can affect the health and productivity of bee colonies. It is important to ensure that hives are appropriately sheltered and provided with adequate food and water.
  4. Environmental hazards: Bees can be affected by environmental hazards such as pesticide exposure, pollution, and habitat loss. It is important to be aware of these hazards and take appropriate measures to protect bee colonies and promote healthy environments for bees.
  5. Legal requirements: Beekeeping may be subject to local, state, or national regulations, such as registration or inspection requirements. It is important to be aware of these requirements and comply with them.

While beekeeping can be a rewarding and enjoyable activity, it is important to be aware of the potential risks and take appropriate measures to mitigate them. By following best practices and staying informed about the latest developments in beekeeping, beekeepers can help ensure the health and productivity of their hives and contribute to the well-being of bee populations worldwide.

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

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