PHOTO: John Brandauer/Flickr
Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
November 28, 2017

Royal Jelly. What an odd thing to see on a shelf in the cosmetics aisle. The name might sound like a quirky marketing scheme, but without royal jelly, the structure of the honeybee hive wouldn’t be possible. This substance is responsible for so many wondrous and miraculous feats in the hive. As a supplement, royal jelly is not without its own controversy.

So what is royal jelly, and what is its intended purpose? This secretion comes from the honeybee nurses. These home-bound hive bees care for the young larvae of the colony. For the first three days of life, all honeybee larvae, regardless of sex or caste, are fed royal jelly. After that time, most bees, those destined to be workers, and a smaller percentage to be drones, are switched to a diet of honey, pollen and the digestive enzymes of their older sisters, the nurse bees. They’ll remain on this diet indefinitely.

Young larvae destined to be queens, however, are continually fed the royal jelly secretion. Queen larvae are fed this diet exclusively, and it is this diet that determines that they will become queens rather than female workers.

What exactly is royal jelly? Well, like most substances on our planet, it’s mostly water—about two-thirds. Another 13 percent (give or take) is protein; about 12 percent is sugar, another 5 percent is fat and another 4 percent is a mix of amino acids and vitamins. All of these percentages are estimates and the exact number fluctuates between various colonies and individual bees, wherever they might live.

Royal jelly is important in the honeybee hive. Yet as we humans tend to do, we have taken something that another creature uses and found our own applications for it.

Despite its high cost, royal jelly, also called “bee milk,” has been used as a supplement in human health, medicine and beauty for a long time, particularly in Chinese medicine. There’s not much conclusive research about its health benefits in the West, but many continue to produce, sell and use it for a variety of health and beauty applications. Royal jelly has been used to treat:

  • Indigestion and stomach ulcers
  • The symptoms of PMS and menopause
  • Liver and kidney disease
  • Insomnia
  • Infertility
  • Skin disorders
  • High cholesterol

As a beauty supplement, it’s added to creams, lotions and other products to support skin health and offset the effects of aging.

The controversy lies in the harvest. Harvesting products from the honeybee hive is a precarious and delicate dance, which should be conducted with the seasons and timed just right. Each item that comes from the hive must be thoughtfully taken with great care and preparation—taking too much of any one thing, be it honey, pollen or wax, could leave the hive at a significant disadvantage and result in its demise. Royal jelly takes this challenge one step further. In order to harvest royal jelly, nurse bees must be led to believe they are raising a queen. Special frames are placed in the hive that contain preconstructed queen cells. Nurse bees then raise queens within those hundreds of cells, feeding each larva royal jelly. Before the larvae fully form (when they’re about only four days old), the frame is pulled, the larvae removed and discarded, and the royal jelly harvested, cell by cell with a special spoon.

As with any honeybee product, special care and consideration should be given before consumption, ethically as well as medicinally. Just as it is with honey, if you choose to consume royal jelly as a supplement, take the time to find responsible and locally produced sources, if possible, knowing that much of the commercially available royal jelly comes from overseas. There are wonderful resources in the natural world to help us grow and heal, but we must always be mindful of the way we harvest and whose efforts we support.

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