What is royal jelly?
A nourishing substance secreted by bees, royal jelly is the exclusive food of the hive queen and young larvae. Like essential oils, or propolis, its strength comes from the complexity of its composition. If someone isolated one part of royal jelly that was beneficial to bees and fed it to them, it would not be as effective as the real thing. It is clearly what we would call a synergistic material. This synergy is what helps keep up the natural health defences of a hive.
For the queen, royal jelly is a powerful reproductive stimulant. Considering that queens lay up to 2000 eggs per day and live 30 times longer than a worker bee, it definitely plays an important role in supporting the life of a hive queen.
The unfortunate flipside of all this nutritive power is the fact royal jelly is that it is extremely fragile. Its active components degrade quickly when taken from the hive and, if treated poorly, can even become toxic. Depending on the harvest, preparation, and preservation methods, royal jelly can be a marvellous support, or a potentially dangerous substance that triggers asthma attacks and stomach aches.
This is exactly why it is so important to know where royal jelly products come from, and that it is not some altered substance.
The origin of French royal jelly
When a hive grows beyond 60 000 bees, one sole queen will not be sufficient to hold the colony together. At this point, the bees start putting in place the necessities for a new one. This queen is raised in only 13 days. When she is ready, the old queen will leave with a swarm in search of a new place to live: your chimney (likely to your dismay), an empty hive, or a fallen tree trunk.
But how do the workers choose and raise a new queen?
Young bees aged between 5 and 15 days, appropriately called “nannies”, begin to secrete a “magic milk” that comes from special glands near their jaws and at the back of their head.
This milk is strictly reserved for the queen. Only very young bee larvae have the right to taste it during the first three of days of their lives, before being switch to the same boring diet as the average worker bee (honey and pollen). Because of this magic milk, which you will have guessed by now to be royal jelly, the queen can grow twice as fast a worker.
Furthermore, the queen’s ovaries become completely developed, something not seen in worker bees; she will also live for up to five years when a worker bee’s lifespan clocks in at only a few weeks. Royal jelly is the only thing that can create the differences between the queen, the active, infatigable mother of the hive, and her sterile workers.
The composition of French royal jelly:
Royal jelly is one of the nutritiously rich substances found in nature. It contains an astounding amount of active components:
- Proteins and amino acids, including the 8 essential amino acids which are the building blocks of myogenesis (muscle building)
- Energy-giving carbohydrates, particularly natural glucose and fructose
- Fatty acids, including ones unique to royal jelly, which play a role in maintaining the health of the queen and the hive against bacterial infection
- Numerous minerals and trace elements crucial to complex lifeforms
- a high concentration of vitamins, specifically B vitamins
- sex hormones
- gelatin, a precursor of collagen
In short: don’t throw it away! Royal jelly is loaded with many important substances
The harvesting of French royal jelly
To be able to collect royal jelly, special hives need to be put in place.
Certain intensive methods, used in particular in China, eliminate the queen and grow orphan bees to continually produce royal jelly. The hives are then fed with artificial foods containing sugar and proteins.
Not very sporting, nor ethical, even if it is convenient.
What’s more, this method is unable to give the same qualitative results as a naturally managed hive. We specifically keep in mind the fragility of royal jelly, notably the effects of nutritive stress.
Through our practice of Gentle Beekeeping, we watch the quality of food for each hive, and, of course, their general well-being. Our bees forage freely from flowers, and consume only honey and pollen.
In brief… they live the normal life of a bee, rather than being forced into a life of industrial service. And this simple liberty has a positive influence (is it really a surprise?) on the quality and composition of harvested royal jelly.
Our practices equally respect the life and role of each queen at the heart of each hive: that she always there and continues to produce her community. Raising new queens is done in another part of the hive, where we place an extra hive frame containing little cups. These allow the nurses to raise and care for the queens in a specified zone of the hive, and they each begin to secrete several milligrams of royal jelly there on a regular basis. This royal jelly is harvested in moderation, generally every three days from April to July. This is the time that normally corresponds with the natural periods where new queens would be raised by a colony. It suffices to say that it is an extremely precise work, which demands a deep knowledge of bees and hive health. What’s more, because of its fragility, the royal jelly needs to be harvested in perfectly hygenic conditions. This means not just the hands of the beekeeper but all the tools used to do it.
We have seen examples how royal jelly is produced industrially in places like Asia. To put things in comparison with our methods, this is the fashion in which royal jelly is harvested and conditioned in other places, before arriving on shelves around the world…
To condition it for long distance travel, middlemen buy frozen royal jelly, which is thawed for packaging after shipment. As stability is an issue, people inject gasses into the containers to prevent any natural, biological activity (both good and bad). This technique, which has a large energy footprint in and of itself, does not do much to do the vital, living properties of this extraordinary substance.
For our part, we consider it far more preferable to consume local royal jelly freshly harvested from beekeepers or, at the very worst, royal jelly kept in a refrigerator well above freezing for maximum one year. This guarantees that more of the benefits are present.
Mixing about small amounts (around 2% of the total) of royal jelly with honey is also a very good natural conservation method. This mixture is also recommended for people with certain sensitivities to bee products.
How do you ensure the quality of French royal jelly?
The first criteria is always its freshness. Avoid choosing a frozen product that has been transported long distances. Equally avoid any royal jelly that has been overly transformed: freeze dried, gassed, pill form… the vital elements of royal jelly are fragile and do not stand up well to this abuse. If you have already tasted it, you know that the taste of royal jelly is rather intense. It evokes the flavor of honey but more acidic and less sweet. A foul tasting royal jelly, one with reduced flavor, or very spicy, these are to be put where they belong - the trash!
There are a number of royal jelly producers in France and in Europe. The GPGR (the official organization of French royal jelly producers) has done a massive amount of work to enshrine quality as paramount, and help set up young producers looking to get into the business. Think of them next time you buy this extraordinary product!
Important to know:
The organic AB label often seen on royal jelly does not mention the origin of the products and often can come from China or other far off places even with this designation. It does not guarantee a fresh or local royal jelly!