The Secrets of Royal Jelly – Roald Dahl’s version.

royal jelly

The wonderful Roald Dahl once wrote a wonderful bee-story: Royal Jelly.

I have always thought this story is an unsettling mix between fact and fiction. Is the crazy beekeeper Albert Taylor for real? Is he serious about feeding his malnourished daughter tons and tons of royal jelly to make her nice and plump?

Eccentric character Albert Tayler refers to beekeeping magazines and scientific research discussing the great benefits of the magical royal substance. He tries to convince his wife with the “scientific facts”. For a long time I have wondered whether these scientific articles were real, or whether the amazing imagination of Roald Dahl had exceeded to the next level. Today, I want to find out.

First a few examples from the text –

In an article called “The Latest on Royal Jelly” Albert reads: “Royal jelly is fed in concentrated form to all bee larvae for the first three days after hatching from the egg; but beyond that point, for all those who are destined to become drones or workers, this precious food is greatly diluted with honey and pollen. On the other hand, the larvae which are destined to become queens are fed throughout the whole of their larval period on a concentrated diet of pure royal jelly. Hence the name.”

He explains in quite a blunt way to his wife where it comes from: “They get this stuff out of a gland in their heads and they start pumping it into the cell to feed the larva” (…)  “The nurse bees simply pour it into the cell, so much so in fact that the little larva is literally floating in it”

All right. That sounds all pretty true to me.

And then this: “Royal jelly must be a substance of tremendous nourishing power, for on this diet alone, the honey-bee larva increases in weight fifteen hundred times in five days. (…) This is as if a seven-and-half pound baby should increase in that time to five tons”

This is the sentence that basically drives him to a hysterical rage about the miracle of royal jelly.

And then some concrete names fly over the pages. The British Bee Journal, the American Bee Journal, and a few scientists: Frederick A. Banting,  Heyl, Still and Burdett. Real scientists or not? I put the names through the google filter and I found interesting results: Roald Dahl has ever so slightly changed their names. They are fictional characters, yet based on real scientists. Frederick A. Banting is in fact Frederick G. Banting, and Still and Burdett are actually Hill and Burdett.

Also, even though it was true that many of these scientist experimented with royal jelly on rats; it is not clear that they discovered exactly the stuff Dahl writes about. From what I have been able to find, it seems that Hill and Burdett’s research made claims about rat fertility and royal jelly (in relation to vitamin E) but later research has shown that their experiments weren’t set up in a proper way to obtain reliable data, so their conclusions were misrepresentations.

It seems ironical that Albert Taylor’s gets so excited about these scientists specifically. The cool thing is that it actually supports the story: it makes Albert even more of a crazy, ranting beekeeper (that  furiously believes in “dodgy science”.)

The most impressive story he puts forward about the fertility powers of royal jelly is that a ninety-year old guy sired a healthy boy after taking minute doses of royal jelly in capsule form.

Whether this is all true or not, the big question of the story remains:  Is it a good idea to feed royal jelly to malnourished human babies?

And this is one remarkable answer I found:

According to research conducted by R. Krell at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, royal jelly will help underfed children to gain in weight, more hemoglobin and red blood cells . (

So, besides from being a crazy beekeeper, perhaps Albert Taylor had a good point after all?


Image: Wikimedia Commons


Comments on Green “Queen” Porn

I would like to give a few comments on the  great “Green Porno” short educational film about the queen bee. Even though most aspects in this film are spot on, other ones may be a bit misleading.

First of all, the film starts off a bit dubious. Isabella Rossellini’s first line is: “If a were a bee, a queen bee, I would be very fat”. Then you see her dressed up as an enormously fat queen bee laying on the ground.

I remember thinking exactly the same thing before I became a beekeeper: I thought that queen bees were big and fat. I almost imagined a kind of bumble bee. I remember when a beekeeper pointed out an actual queen to me for the first time. I was so surprised – she wasn’t fat at all! She also wasn’t that big. Yes, she was slightly bigger than the workers, but you have to have a good eye to recognise her among the crowd. She is certainly not the big conspicuous blop that Rossellini embodies. Frankly, her visual representation of the queen -if anything- looks like a massive bumble-bee to me. I think her film re-enforces a misleading stereotypical thought about queen bees, and that is unnecessary. If only her outfit was a bit more “queen-shaped” I would have been a lot happier. In my eyes, the most outstanding aspect of the queen’s body are her wings that seem short in relation to her long abdomen.

Rossellini then explains the queen’s role in the bee society, and the roles of the workers and drones. She explains that when workers feed royal jelly to a larva, it will turn the larva into a fertile queen. Then she describes the journey of the queen’s mating flight. And this is where an other misrepresentation occurs.

She describes the mating flight from the point of view of one single male. First, you see “the brothers” hanging out together, completely bored and waiting to have sex; then one single male stands up, beats up his brothers to prove he is the strongest and flies up to the queen to mate with her.

Then, after sex, Lo and behold! When the drone tries to pull out his penis it gets stuck in the vagina and breaks off! “But it would prevent other males from mating with her”.

It seems like Rossellini says that only one strong drone has the privilege to mate with the queen, and after sex other males can’t mate with her anymore.  This one and only drone dies and the queen is fulfilled to give birth to his babies and start a new colony. It is a quick wrap up.

This film overlooks the fact that the mating flight of the queen takes place over a few days, and each day she mates with many different drones.

I think Rossilini has realised this misrepresentation. Perhaps this is why she made a second film about the queen bee. This one is called “Burt Talks to the Bees: Queen Bee”.

She corrects her simplified story in this second film. Here, she elaborates more thoroughly on what happens during the mating flight. She tells that the queen has “many husbands”. She flies out in spring, and the males are attracted by her perfume (in other words: her pheromones). The mating flight lasts for a few days, and each day the queen mates with about 16 or 17 males. “We bees don’t waste sperm like you humans do”, she says. She emphasises that the queen saves the sperm from all the males – and uses it throughout her lifetime to give birth to her daughters.

So, not just sperm from one male as the first film suggested. It is great that this second film was made, but it almost becomes a requirement to watch it in order to not be mislead by the first film. And that’s a shame: each film is an individual entity and they should be complete and correct in themselves.

I realise it is a dilemma for people like Rossellini who want to deliver science in a clever, accessible way. It is a battle between two evils: What do you prefer for your audience – ignorance or error? Is walking around with a simplified (mis)representation in your head, better than knowing nothing at all? Simple generalisations like these are a good way to attract an audience, but it is a challenge to depict the “simple” as accurate as possible.

However, I don’t want to bee too negative. I really love both of these films and I think Rossillini is amazingly convincing! It is great films like these are out there. Emphasising family relationships like husbands, fathers, grandfathers sons and daughters is a great way of creating a feeling of connectedness to bees. Looking at animals from a human point of view makes it so much easier to relate and to care about the animals- and that is exactly the goal.

What do you think?


Poem Of a Mutated Larva (Or Two).



O, Morphous mass!

On the bottom of the cell

Are you waiting for me?

Your body porridge
Slump. A foul fishy
odour of rotten flesh

And workers stamping
on your brown, lifeless mush
Leaving, as they leave,
A tiny imprint

“Here lays a fleshy worm.
slimy tongues poke out
or dry to a stale


I’m sorry, that was disgusting. What the hell was that!?

This, my dear readers, is the New Zealand Beekeeper’s Nightmare.

This is AFB, American Foul Brood Disease; or the “Aids of the Bees”. When there is AFB in the beehive, there is no cure. When there is AFB in the beehive, the only solution is to burn all the evidence.

In this weird poem I have described a few very important symptoms that help you identifying this disease. Symptoms are best recognised in the larval or pupal (post-larval) stage. To sum up a few:

Instead of a healthy pearly white creature that is curled up in a c-shape; the larva/pupa becomes

  • Body porridge
  • Slump: it lays like a flat mass on the bottom of its cell
  • Brown
  • Lifeless
  • Stinks like rotten fish
  • After a while the slimy substance dries up to hard scaly bits

However, these symptoms could be confused with symptoms of other bee diseases. This is why my poem ends with the one and only Definitive Symptom of  AFB

  • The Pupal Tongue. For some strange reason, a pupa that dies of AFB  sticks out its tongue. It looks like a thin thread that points upwards in the cell. You rarely see it, but when you do there is no doubt: your hive is infected with AFB. 
  • Another way to identify the disease is by doing the “Ropiness-test“. This is shown in the picture above. To do this test all you need is a little stick; the foot of a match stick for example, or a piece of dry straw. You poke it into a suspicious looking cell. When you lift it out again and you see a brown slimy thread roping out, there is a good chance your hive is infected.

You can start raising suspicions by looking at the wax-caps that cover the brood. (This is only the case when the larva/pupa is 9 days or older). Symptoms that they might show are:

Perforation. If you see any any caps with holes in it, it’s a sign that worker bees have “smelled” that something is wrong. They poke a hole in the cap and peer through it, to check if their babies are OK.
sunken caps
greasy texture (instead of fluffy)
grey colour (instead of light to dark brown)
spotty cap pattern (instead consistent laying pattern; however this can also be a sign of a failing queen (see my previous post).

Note: You only have to find ONE infected larva or pupa in order to diagnose AFB. When this is the case, you have to burn the whole hive (according to New Zealand regulations). It’s a nasty process. You should pour petrol over the bees first, so that they suffocate. You dig a hole, throw in the hive and set the whole thing on fire.

What is the cause of all this misery?

It’s a bacteria. Paenibacillus larvae is its name. As it develops it appears in two different forms.

  • Spore form. Like plant seeds with a hard outer coat. The spores are extremely strong: they can live over 35 years, and resist boiling water.  The bee children get infected when nurse bees feed them honey and pollen with spores on it. One single diseased larva may contain more than 2.5 billion spores.
  • Vegetative form: This is the bacteria as a reproducing agent. The spore has germinated into something that is replicating itself. It climbs into the gut of the young larva and when the larva matures to the (pre-)pupal stage, it penetrates the gut wall. It starts replicating more and more by consuming bee-tissues. Often it’s fatal. the vegetative rods turn back into spores when all tissues have been consumed. It means there’s no more food left for them. This is how the infection can start off with 10 spores and ends up with billions in one single bee.

Don’t think that bees let this disease just passively overwhelm them! They will do their best to get rid of it by taking away infected larva and excreting infected honey outside the hive.

Unfortunately, their attempts are not always successful…

Who’s to blame?


The most important source of AFB spread is the beekeeper!

  1. By switching extracted honey supers (boxes) between hives (often a year later)
  2. Transfer of brood frames between hives

At other times the disease spreads through the behaviour of bees themselves. The most important source is robbing. Robber bees are bees that infiltrate other hives. They ingest infected honey, take it into their own hive, regurgitate it there and feed to their brood.  Robbing is usually how AFB turns up out of the blue in commercial operations.


Most of this information comes from the book “Elimination of American foulbrood without the use of drugs” by Mark Goodwin, Cliff Van Eaton, National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand. After studying this information I sat a bee disease exam, passed it, and this is how I became an “Approved Beekeeper”.