Articles (Bees, Pollination, etc)

Royal Jelly Isn’t What Makes a Queen Bee a Queen Bee

Royal Jelly Isn’t What Makes a Queen Bee a Queen Bee

There's no place like comb: two future honey bee queens developing on a bed of royal jelly. Waugsberg, CC

For decades, scientists thought an excess of something special, a substance called royal jelly, elevated a regular honey bee larva to a queen. New research suggests we had it backward: It’s what future queens aren’t fed that matters.

Royal jelly, which also is called “bee milk,” looks like white snot. More than half of it is water, the rest is a combination of proteins and sugars. Special glands in the heads of worker bees secrete the stuff, which gets fed to babies.

A developing queen bee is fed royal jelly exclusively—not pollen and honey like her proletarian sisters. Some describe withholding royal jelly from worker bees as nutritional castration. These bees don’t get the special Food of the Gods. Or, perhaps, food of genetic monarchies. And so, we thought, their ovaries shrivel, and they don’t become a queen.

It turns out, it’s the other way around. Not feeding an immature queen pollen and honey is what makes her royal, not her exclusive access to royal jelly.

Queens and Genes

Radically different looking animals can be created from identical genetic material; a worker bee and a queen bee differ only in which genes are activated. Genes make proteins, which build the rest of our bodies. By manipulating the environment of their offspring, honey bees genetically alter their bodies via nutrition.

We’ve known for a while that bees’ diet is involved in building different kinds of bee bodies. Science is still figuring out just how that happens. Queen larvae are surrounded by royal jelly; they float on a sea of sugary bee gland snot in enlarged cells. Worker bees eat beebread (a type of fermented pollen) and honey. Nurse bees mash this into a “worker jelly” and add glandular secretions as a garnish. Workers don’t get the special stuff in queen jelly, and their ovaries shrivel.

That’s the conventional explanation. But Dr. May Berenbaum, a professor at University of Illinois and an author of the new research, says there isn’t a simple answer to the question What do bee babies eat?

“We had the hardest time figuring out what larvae eat,” she says. “Among other things, worker jelly and royal jelly appear to have, and there is no consensus, a slightly different ratio of mandibular to hypopharyngeal gland secretion … It all happens in the dark surrounded by 50,000 stingers. So it isn’t the easiest insect in the world to work on.”

Beebread and honey are derived from plant materials, and like many plant materials, they contain a variety of phenolic chemicals. We eat them all the time; flavonoids are the plant chemicals that give plants their unique flavors (and help plants discourage plant-eating insects, among other functions).

Royal jelly, however, has no detectable phenolic acids. None. From previous research, the researchers knew that flavonoids increase immune responses of adult worker bees. That’s a good thing; it has the side effect of helping bees detoxify pesticides faster. The scientists wondered how developing bees would react to phenolic compounds.

To find out, they fed two groups of bee larvae diets with and without p-coumaric acid, a common type of flavonoid. Then they looked closely at differences in gene activation between the groups. The results were startling, unexpected, and nifty.


Bees reared on the p-coumaric acid diet had ovaries significantly smaller than those reared without that compound. That’s the kicker, because what makes a queen bee a queen? She’s the only bee in the hive laying eggs. Fourteen genes known to be involved in worker-queen differentiation were upregulated, or increased in expression.


Queen bees also are bigger and live longer than worker bees. In one set of genes known to regulate organ size in animals, p-coumaric acid significantly changed the expression of over half of genes involved in that signaling pathway.

“We never set out to change perceptions on queens and caste determination,” says Berenbaum. “I’m interested in detoxification; how insects cope with phytochemicals they consume. Much to our surprise and delight, a whole suite of other genes that were implicated in caste determination changed.”

“It was one of those impossible to miss sorts of phenomena. I think … the idea of royal jelly is so appealing, people haven’t really questioned it.”

The Silencing of the Genes

With over four centuries of living with bees, why are humans still learning so much about them? To answer that question, I reached out to Dr. Ryszard Maleszka at Australian National University. Maleszka, who is not an author of the new research, works specifically on honey bee epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of how environments affect gene expression. “With our current knowledge we only scratch the surface of biological systems, and honey bee biology is no exception,” Maleszka says. “We are dealing with 500 million years of animal evolution so there is much to discover.”

“[This research] is a wonderful example of an evolutionary invention whereby common plant chemicals have been recruited to be crucial elements of gene regulation … By using environmental ingredients honey bees found a clever solution to a challenging problem: How to generate two contrasting organisms, long-lived reproductive queens and short-lived functionally sterile workers, using the same genetic hardware.”

Lots of factors go into making a queen beyond the plant chemicals examined in the new research: A compound with the wonderful name of royalactin, for example, has been proposed as critical to queen development. Maleszka has delivered a stinging rebuke to the idea that a single compound in royal jelly is the “switch” that makes a queen, though. In 2008, his lab was able to create queen bees without any royal jelly consumption, by turning off (silencing) a set of genes. Other bee researchers have questioned the “one molecule to rule them all” idea of queen development. The reality is likely that, like everything else in biology, it’s complex and many factors are involved.

The real power of this new research may be in explaining why worker bees don’t become queens. Instead of chemical castration by denying workers royal jelly, this elaborate feeding process provides chemical protection for the queen’s ovaries. She is sheltered from the potential toxic or metabolic effects of plant chemicals. As we continue to improve our techniques, hopefully we will come closer to a firm answer about just what honey bees eat in their hives, and why.

Postscript: Um, Why Are Humans Eating Royal Jelly?

When we thought royal jelly was magic queen stuff, stealing and eating phlegm produced in insect heads made a kind of warped sense. Royal jelly proponents claim the stuff cures all sorts of human problems, infertility in particular. By deduction, the stuff that makes queen bees baby machines, laying up to 2,000 eggs a day, should increase human fertility. I am compelled to say this is not how scientists deduce cause and effect.

Royal jelly also is sold as an aphrodisiac, and like most erotic insect products, it’s applied with “vigorous rubbing.” That makes it hard to say just how firm evidence for this erectile remedy really is. Also, actual honey bee reproduction involves penis detachment and death, which doesn’t sound like a good time to me, if we are sticking with that whole “what works for a bee will work for humans” analogy.

Royal jelly does have antibacterial and antifungal properties, since it’s the gunk developing bees float in until they metamorphose. It’s marketed in many cosmetics as an anti-aging ingredient; queen bees live 40 times longer than worker bees. So far, there isn’t much evidence of royal jelly having medical significance in humans. It’s probably a good moisturizer, though. Especially if you don’t think about where it comes from.

My best guess is that about 600 tons of royal jelly is produced and sold yearly; East Asia is the main producer. Prices vary widely, but based on a trip to my local health food store, seems to run about $1 per gram. The market value of royal jelly is based on what we thought we knew about its magical properties; that doesn’t seem likely to change in the foreseeable future.

But now you can have a lot of fun telling people where their royal bee goobers came from.

Wenfu Mao, Mary A. Schuler, and May R. Berenbaum. 2015. A dietary phytochemical alters caste-associated gene expression in honey bees. Science Advances 1(7).

Russian vs Italian Honey Bees

Comparison of Russian and Italian Honey Bees


American beekeepers have been using Italian honey bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) since they were first imported to the New World in 1859. The standard German honey bee (A. m. mellifera), which had been in America for more than 200 years, was by that time ill-tempered, disease-ridden, and less suited for honey bee management. Conversely, the Italian bees were and are excellent honey producers, show a gentle temperament that makes them the most popular race of honey bee in North America, have a moderately low tendency to swarm, and have a bright yellow color that makes queens easy to find.

But Italian honey bees are susceptible to two deadly parasitic mites, the tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) and the varroa mite (Varroa destructor), which were introduced into the United States in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Colonies contract these mites through equipment sharing and overcrowding, and, once infested, entire colonies can succumb within one or two years. Beekeepers have relied largely on pesticides to control the mites, but many of these chemicals can contaminate the honey and beeswax in a hive. The mites also are becoming increasingly resistant to the pesticides, making the chemicals less reliable and, eventually, ineffective. The high colony mortality that accompanies these two mites is a serious concern of the bee industry today, and various types of bees are continually being examined with an eye toward finding a hardy, productive stock that can resist them.

Russian Bee Project

Efforts to find a honey bee that is genetically resistant to the varroa and tracheal mites led researchers at the USDA Honey Bee Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Russia. There, on the far eastern side of that vast nation, in the coastal Primorski region around Vladivostok, they found what they sought—a promising strain of Apis mellifera. These Russian bees had been exposed to varroa mites for approximately 150 years, much longer than other Apis mellifera strains had, and the researchers surmised that the Russian bees could have developed a resistance to the mites. Indeed, subsequent research has shown that these Russian bees are more than twice as resistant to varroa mites than other honey bees. Moreover, they are highly resistant to tracheal mites, the other mortal enemy of bees. Russian bees also tend to produce as much honey as standard bee stocks, if not more.

A number of American queen breeders now produce Russian queens for sale. These breeders are located all across the country, but most are concentrated in the South and in California. Many of the Russian queens on the market are hybrid daughters of a breeder queen openly mated to any drone, which may come from a variety of stocks within two miles of a particular mating yard. The resulting colonies are genetic hybrids. Recent research has suggested the hybrids are only partially resistant to mites, but studies at North Carolina State University show that partial resistance is statistically significant when the hybrids are compared to Italian bees.

Production of pure Russian queens can be guaranteed only by truly isolating the breeding grounds, as has been done at the USDA’s bee laboratory on Grand Terre Island, 25 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Here the drone stock is also controlled.

Management of Russian Bees

Russian bees are quite different from standard Italian bees in several ways (see Table 1 below):

  • Russian bees do not build their colony populations until pollen is available, and they shut down brood rearing when pollen is scarce. This characteristic makes them suitable in areas where the main honey and pollen flows occur later in the year, such as the mountains of North Carolina. By contrast, Italian bees maintain a large brood area and worker population regardless of environmental conditions. This trait can result in more bees than the hive can feed and may lead Italian colonies to early winter starvation. It also explains the Italian bee’s tendency to rob other colonies of their honey stores.
  • Russian colonies maintain active queen cells through out the brood-rearing season. In Italian colonies, the presence of queen cells is interpreted by beekeepers as an attempt to swarm (reduce overcrowding by establishing a new colony) or to supersede (kill and replace) the resident queen. This is not the case with Russian colonies, as the workers often destroy the extra queen cells before they fully develop.
  • Russian bees can vary in color, but they are generally darker than the Italians.

Requeening Italian hives with Russian queens can be difficult, and many beekeepers lose their newly introduced Russian queens. Russian queens have a different “odor” than Italians, and parent colonies must become acclimated to this odor before they will accept the newcomers. Beekeepers who intend to go from Italian to Russian bees should requeen a colony in the fall by splitting the hive in two with the use of a double screen (see highlighted information). This will permit the odors to mix but, at the same time, prevent the workers from interacting with the new queen. The old Italian queen should be kept in the lower half, and the new Russian queen should be placed in the upper half in a cage. If a separate entrance is provided to the upper half, only young nurse bees will enter the top portion, and the older foraging bees will return to the lower hive.

Requeening Italian colonies with Russian queens

The requeening procedure has frustrated many beekeepers because standard introduction techniques often are not successful when requeening Italian colonies with Russian queens, as the colonies may reject the new queens. Italian bee colonies need more time and separation to become acclimated to Russian queens.

Step 1: Split the colony in half, with the two halves separated by a double screen.

Step 2: Place the old queen in the bottom half and a caged Russian queen in the upper half.

Step 3: Release the Russian queen from her cage after 7 to 10 days.

Step 4: Once the Russian queen has been accepted and has laid eggs for one month, kill the old queen, and reunite the two halves (remove the screens).

The Russian queen should be released from her cage after seven to ten days and permitted to lay eggs for four weeks. During this time, the odor of the Russian queen will comingle with that of the Italian colony. If the Russian queen continues to lay eggs and is being tended by the workers, she has been accepted. After this acclimation period, the Italian queen can be removed, and the colony can be reunited. If the workers do not accept the new queen during the four weeks of acclimation, the requeening process has failed, and the workers kill her. But the colony will still have the original Italian queen, and the entire hive will not be lost.

Hybrid bees tend to lose their initial desirable traits over subsequent generations. Because many commercial Russian bees are hybrids, the queen should be marked with paint to distinguish them from succeeding generations. If the colony contains an unmarked queen, she is probably homegrown and a second-generation hybrid and should be replaced with a new marked Russian queen as soon as possible to preserve the hive’s resistance to the mites.

When requeening a Russian colony with a Russian queen, it probably will not be necessary to use the extended acclimation period outlined above. Queens usually come in the mail in cages made of wood and wire-mesh. The exit hole is blocked with a hard candy-like substance that the bees must eat through to release the queen. This usually takes several days, after which the queen has acquired the colony “odor” and is readily accepted by the workers. As noted above, requeening an Italian honey bee colony with a Russian queen takes longer because of the Russian queen’s very different odor.

Table 1. A comparison of various colony characteristics of Italian and Russian honey bees.




Varroa mites

More susceptible

More resistant

Tracheal mites

More susceptible

Highly resistant

Brood rearing

Continuous throughout the summer

Usually only during times of pollen availability




Queen cells

Only during swarming or queen replacement

Present most of the time

Pollination skills

Small difference from Russian bees

Small difference from Italian bees


Gentle, less defensive; not likely to sting

Gentle, less defensive; not likely to sting




Contact Information

North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Apiary Inspection

North Carolina State University Apiculture Program

For more information on beekeeping, visit the Beekeeping Notes website.

David R. Tarpy
Professor and Extension Apiculturist
Department of Entomology, Campus Box 7613
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7613
TEL: (919) 515-1660
FAX: (919) 515-7746
EMAIL: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Jennifer J. Keller
Apiculture Technician
Department of Entomology, Campus Box 7613
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC 27695-7613
TEL: (919) 513-7702
FAX: (919) 515-7746
EMAIL: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This project received support from the Golden LEAF Foundation.


David Tarpy

Professor and Extension Apiculturist

Jeffrey Lee

Commercial Beekeeper
Lee's Bees, Mebane, NC

Bees at the Brink

The past few decades of farm economics have created a system in which one-third of the food on our plate now relies on just one pollinator — the honeybee. And it's dying.


Story by Josephine Marcotty
Photos and videos by Renée Jones Schneider

Job swapping makes its mark on honeybee DNA

Job swapping makes its mark on honeybee DNA

Switching roles within the hive is reflected in reversible epigenetic changes.

Nicky Guttridge

16 September 2012


Subtle differences in the DNA of honeybees are reflected in the bees' roles within the hive. These DNA modifications are normally fixed, but research published today in Nature Neuroscience1 reveals the first example of reversible changes to DNA associated with behaviour.

All honeybees (Apis mellifera) are born equal, but this situation doesn’t last long. Although genetically identical, the bees soon take on the specific roles of queen or worker. These roles are defined not just by behavioural differences, but by physical ones. Underlying them are minor modifications to their DNA: ‘epigenetic’ changes that leave the DNA sequence intact, but that add chemical tags in the form of methyl (CH3) molecules to sections of the DNA. This in turn alters the way a gene is expressed2.

Once a bee is a queen or worker, they fulfil that role for life — the change is irreversible. But that is not the case for the subdivisions among the workers. The workers start out as nurses, which look after and feed the queen and larvae, and most then go on to become foragers, which travel out from the hive in search of pollen. Again the two types have very different methylation patterns in their DNA.

This time, however, as the latest results show, the DNA modifications are reversible: if a forager reverts to being a nurse, its methylation pattern reverts too.

Led by Andrew Feinberg of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Gro Amdam of Arizona State University in Tempe, the researchers coaxed forager bees back into nursing roles by removing all the nurses from the hive while the foragers were out looking for pollen. When the foragers returned, they noticed the lack of nurses, and about half of them took on nursing roles. Examination of the methylation patterns in DNA from their brain cells showed that these too had switched back to the pattern associated with nurses.

“What is exciting is that the genes that change back are the same genes that changed in the other direction initially — and the same ones that would regulate epigenetic behaviour,” says Feinberg.

Gene Robinson, a bee researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the research, says that although the paper does not necessarily prove that epigenetic mechanisms cause behavioural differences, “it demonstrates for the first time that if behaviour is reversible so is the methylation”.

But Amdam says that the fact that honeybees can revert to a previous role indicates that there is a kind of ‘epigenetic roadmap’. “Brain cells can rely on shifts between these roadmaps to control different behaviours correctly,” she says.

A greater understanding of how epigenetics affects behaviour may lead to insights into human biology, Feinberg says, noting that epigenetic effects on human behaviour might express themselves in addiction, learning and memory. If the link between behaviour and methylation patterns “is true in a bee, it is likely to also be true in us”, he says.

This does not mean that artificially changing the methylation pattern of DNA would result in a desired behaviour, but “it would be great if that was feasible”, says Amdam. “Reversing possible ‘bad’ epigenetic marks in human physical and psychological diseases is already a big research interest in biomedicine. Perhaps bees can be used to figure out how it could be done.”



Bee Thinking About – For January, 2013

  Bee Thinking About – For January, 2013


Posted on December 26, 2012 by

Editor’s Note: Welcome to a new year of month-to-month beekeeping considerations. If you’re new to this every-month article, we make a list of things to think about for your apiary—but it of course varies by geographic location, the weather you’re having, and your beekeeping preferences.

For most of our readers, January is one of the few times of year when there is very little to do in the apiary. There’s still plenty to do beyond it however, as described below.

For readers with a climate opposite that of North America’s, we hope you’re happily harvesting honey and building up your colonies. We love sharing information on beekeeping around the world, so if you find a spare minute and want to tell us about your unique challenges, please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

So, what’s to be done this time of year?

In the apiary: For most of us, external hive checks are all we dare perform because of the weather. Things to do include:

  1. Remove any snow that has blocked doorways and ventilation holes. Honeybees need fresh air, and the ability to exit for a “biobreak” when weather permits.
  2. Clear any dead bees from the entry way and ventilation holes.
  3. Look about:  Beekeeper Cleo Hogan shared that the “first thing I look for in the apiary in January and February is for what has been in the apiary. The best clues come from the tracks in the snow. Birds, rabbits, perhaps a mouse or two. Certainly no clear-thinking human.”Look for tracks. Not only is it interesting, but if you find tracks go into hives but not away from them, you may want to investigate further.One beekeeper told us when he saw lots of human tracks in the snow in his out-apiary, he kept a closer eye on it. Turns out some hunters were perhaps overly curious about bees. In years past he’d experienced hives being knocked over in the winter and the honey stolen. He suspects letting the hunters know they were seen (and making a show of writing down their license plate number) may have prevented another loss.
    A propolized mouse from inside a hive, photo courtesy of Norbert Gernes. For more information on this amazing incident, check out page 4 of our December, 2010 issue.


  4. Review the area and remove any branches that may fall onto hives under heavy snow or ice.
  5. Look for dead bees. Some dead bees is not a bad thing—it tells you the colony has recently had some live bees who were out doing their business or perhaps choosing to die outside the hive when it was their time. We can’t quantify how many dead bees would be appropriate versus how many would be alarming. That depends upon how big the colony is and your weather conditions. IF helpful to you, determine if the colony is still alive. If you don’t see any dead bees, or see what you think are way too many, perhaps you’ve lost the hive. Some beekeepers will put an ear to the hive body likely containing the cluster, and rap sharply, hoping to hear a reactive buzz.Should you do that? On one hand, it’s comforting if you hear it so you know they’re still alive. On the other hand, what are you going to do if you don’t hear it? This time of year, things inside the hive generally are what they are. There’s likely not much a beekeeper can do about whatever is going on in there unless conditions allow you to investigate further. There is one good reason to determine if you’ve truly lost a colony or not:  if you need to order more bees. Now is the time to do so (see A-Bee-Cs article in this issue.)
  6. Feed. Many parts of the US have again experienced an unusually warm start to winter. Bees NOT in their winter cluster consume more stores than clustered bees, so these may be the months where any colony short on stores may be reaching a critical level. The Mountain Camp Method, described in previous issues, is reasonable insurance against starvation IF they can get to it. (If it is quite cold, they may not break cluster to get to their own honey or anything else.) Weather permitting, you could add a liquid feeder as well, but bees generally don’t take it well unless the temperature is sustainably 45 degrees or warmer.
  7. Rejoice! Celebrate if you have an unusually warm day and see bees out flying (beyond their quick biobreaks). On an unusually warm winter day, you may want to provide nutrients, like honey, or sugar syrup.


Bees lining up to take down sugar syrup.


Outside of the apiary:  there’s plenty to do, including:

  1. Repair equipment. It is much easier to remove wax when it is brittle from the cold! Spread a good coat of paint over those external hive surfaces if that’s how you protect them from the weather.
  2. Inventory and plan:  As Texan beekeeper Dennis Brown1 stated:  “January is the month I take inventory of all my hives, all my extra hive parts and make a plan for what I want to accomplish with my bees during the coming season. Then, I am able to look at what I have on hand and decide if I need to order anything before the season begins. If I do need something for the coming season, I usually place that order in January. It is never good when you get into the busy season and discover that you don’t have something and you need to order it. Planning ahead is key in order to be successful in beekeeping. If you don’t make a plan, you will always be one step behind.”
  3. Beekeeper Cleo Hogan seconded spending some time planning in January: “start seriously considering your goals for the coming year. How many hives, where they will be located, medicate or not, comb or extracted honey, need more equipment or supplies, etc.
  4. Build new equipment.
  5. Read. Start with perhaps the 2013 Kelley’s catalog, where you’ll find many must-haves, along with some great books and other resources to help you be a better beekeeper. Did you miss any newsletter issues? They’re all available at
  6. Write. We’d love to hear about your beekeeping practices—what works and doesn’t, why you keep bees, what you wished you’d known from the beginning, any helpful hints (please please please) and the unique challenges of your apiary. Email us at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
  7. Organize those cool apiary photos—and send them to us! (Again,   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .) Thanks.
  8. Volunteer. We suspect your local bee club would appreciate your talents. And if there isn’t a local bee club, perhaps this is the time to get it going? Check with your community’s senior center—we suspect they’d love a bee presentation, along with the local daycare and elementary school.
  9. Pray to the bee gods for a gentle winter that allows the bees to get out when they need to do so, for the cluster to remain large and with golden, nutritious honey, and for the queen to have restorative rest to lay thousands of eggs when the season comes.

We’re sure we’ve forgotten something! 

As always, your comments and contributions welcome, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Dennis Brown, author of Author of “Beekeeping: A Personal Journey” is a regular contributor to our newsletter. You can learn more about his approach to beekeeping at Lone Star Farms,

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Queen's Contrivance.

The purpose of this website is to promote honey beekeeping by providing a forum in which current honey beekeepers may become more knowledgeable of best practices and the public can become more, and accurately, informed on the benefits of honey bees. For more info or comments, contact Jeff Crooks at