Royal Jelly – a story by Roald Dahl

If you’ve ever read Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, you’ll know they’re very different in tone to his more famous children’s books. My mum had both his Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch collections and I re-read them quite a few times as a child, including the story Royal Jelly. This week I was in the Barbican Library near my work and stopped to check out the returned shelves. One of the books there happened to be Kiss Kiss, so I got it out specially to read Royal Jelly again. As a child my knowledge of bees was basic, so the story had a new fascination now that I’m a beekeeper. The plot involves a married couple who have just had a long-awaited child. The mother, Mabel Taylor, is “half dead with exhaustion”, out of her mind with worry because the baby girl will hardly take any milk. This baby is eating so little that at six weeks old she weighs two pounds less than she did at birth. Then an idea comes to Mabel’s husband, Albert. He is a professional beekeeper and whilst reading his beekeeping magazine comes across an article on royal jelly. The article details the wonderful properties of royal jelly, including the tremendous weight gain of a honey bee larva fed on it. ‘Aha’ thinks Albert – and proceeds to add royal jelly to his little girl’s feed. The strategy works, with the baby greedily lapping up this new formula and crying for more – but this new enriched milk also has some unexpected side-effects. Queen larva floating in royal jelly Uncapped queen cell Swarm season Reading the story now, I was surprised by how detailed and accurate Dahl’s descriptions of bee biology and beekeeping generally were. He must have done a fair amount of research to write the story. For instance, take the articles listed in the contents page from his bee journal: Among the Bees in May; Honey Cookery; Experience in the Control of Nosema; The Latest on Royal Jelly; This Week in the Apiary; The Healing Power of Propolis. The story was first published in 1959 and yet these could be articles from a current journal. His descriptions of royal jelly were accurate according to scientific knowledge at the time. For instance, Albert Taylor explains to his wife that it “can transform a plain dull-looking little worker bee with practically no sex organs at all into a great big beautiful fertile queen”. Worker larvae receive pure royal jelly for only the first three days of their lives, after which they are fed a mixture of royal jelly, honey and pollen. In contrast a larva chosen to become a queen receives only an abundance of royal jelly throughout her larval life, so much so that she is literally floating in it. For years it has indeed been accepted opinion that royal jelly is the miracle food which has the ability to turn an ordinary female larva, laid from an identical egg to her sisters, into a queen. However, some new research published in August 2015 suggests that what really matters is what larvae chosen to become queens aren’t fed – the pollen and honey their ordinary worker sisters get. In 2008, Australian scientist Dr. Ryszard Maleszka managed to create queens in his lab without feeding them any royal jelly (by silencing a set of genes). One theory is that receiving no pollen provides chemical protection for the queen’s ovaries, as she is sheltered from the potential toxic or metabolic effects of plant chemicals. All this is a rather round-about way of recommending this story to you and also mentioning that in April 2016 I’m expecting a little drone – just in time for swarm season. Having read the story, I will not be feeding him any royal jelly! References: A dietary phytochemical alters caste-associated gene expression in honey bees (Wenfu Mao, Mary A. Schuler and May R. Berenbaum, Science Advances, 28 Aug 2015: Vol. 1, no. 7) – the scientific paper Royal jelly isn’t what makes a queen bee a queen bee (Gwen Pearson,, September 2015) – the reader-friendly version

— gReader

More about hive monitoring

I am a volunteer for Hughenden Manor where I began solely as a beekeeper on an entirely volunteer run bee project and became a web editor and newsletter editor. We have a separate blog about the project on WordPress which we call Hughenden Buzz and we have been experimenting with a market leader, the Arnia Hive monitoring blog entry equipment. We have been very pleased with it and with the support from Arnia who have been enormously helpful and also who are so knowledgeable about beekeeping so the combination of their expertise has been invaluable. I’d love similar equipment for my own hives but it is way outside my budget. I am not sure how many beekeepers have experience about the concept of crowdfunding, as many beekeepers I know prefer to be outside with tehir bees rather than indoors playing with technology. I’ve dabbled in things before, as has my husband. Typically, small groups have projects for which they need some funding and they describe their project and invite people to give money (which will be returned if their minimum amount is not reached). This can be from very small amounts to larger ones. Quite often early supporters then receive an extra perk and large sum supporters may have some quite exceptional and rare rewards. For example, some films have been funded this way and large scale supporters can choose to have a very minor role in the film or meet the famous actors in person. When I heard about a project based on hive monitoring equipment, and unobtrusive strip which would communicate with an iphone through the excellent Honey Bee Suite blog Bees in postbox

Close up of the swarm

I sponsored them with a fairly modest sum (less than £30) for which the perk for the first investors was a free broodminder device. It seemed a bargain and as they reached higher totals they sent updates to investors and then recently, news they were shipping my broodminder. There is a small snag. let us call it a snagette. They were only shipping to the US. As my daughter and family recently emigrated, I’d given their address, and the device is now at their home. I’ll probably collect it when I go and visit. I’ll need to check it will work for me over here – if not I’ll have to find a Wisconsin beekeeper who’d like to use it. It will still be interesting to follow even if it isn’t in one of my hives. The original Indiegogo appeal can be found here. Here is more information about Arnia and Indiegogo. I’ll add more when I know how the item works. Which may take me several months into next year. Or check out the Honey Bee suite for Rusty’s updates.

Varroa Mites

Varroa mites (Varroa destructor) are the foremost pest of western honey bee colonies. They inhabit nearly every honey bee colony in most of the world, transmit deadly viruses, shorten bee lifespan, limit productivity, and cause severe economic damage every year. Maintaining Varroa populations in the hive below the economic threshold is a primary activity of beekeepers and eradication of the pest is unlikely any time soon. Below are articles that detail the life cycle and biology of varroa, monitoring and treatment options, selecting for resistant stock, and impact of varroacides in the hive…

Ten beekeeping crimes you should not commit

What are beekeeping crimes? A beekeeping crime is a skipped step, a missed opportunity, or an unfortunate assumption about either honey bees, beekeeping, or the environment we live in. They are crimes because they often result in the death of bees, the spread of disease, or unhappy neighbors. I’ve limited my list to ten, but […] The post Ten beekeeping crimes you should not commit appeared first on Honey Bee Suite.

Tucking the bees in for winter

It has taken a while to come, but at last we have proper see-your-breath-in-the-air, see-the-sparkling-frost-in-the-mornings cold. The kind of cold that stops honey bees flying. I walked round the apiary yesterday and the hives could have been abandoned, so quiet were the entrances. Hiding inside – several thousand bees, hundreds of woodlice, a few gigantic spiders and at least one hibernating queen wasp. It is too cold for syrup now, so a slab of fondant has been placed over their crown-boards. Pepper’s girls also have one super, Melissa’s two. Peppermint’s bees were a new split from Pepper’s hive this year and didn’t manage to fill out a super, but they do have plenty of honey in their brood box. Mouse-guards are on, chicken wire to protect against woodpeckers has been placed around the hives and we are using special insulated roofs Tom made for us. Varroa boards left out so that the hives have ventilation from below through the open-mesh floors. I think of it as going into battle, assembling all the weapons we have against the elements and creatures that prey on bees. The bees will do most of the work of course, huddling protectively round their queen as outside the wind howls, the rain lashes and the frost bites. These are a few last details but really preparing the bees for winter goes on all year long. You are always preparing the bees for winter – because the best weapon is having healthy bees to begin with. A combination of luck, the local environment and how well you looked after the bees during the year. It’s things like how clean your equipment is, how recently you replaced your brood combs, how low you kept varroa levels, how much honey you left them, how many times you managed to inspect the colony without squashing the queen or tripping over and dropping boxes of bees everywhere. What was the weather like, were new queens able to mate well, could the foragers fly often, were there good sources of forage around for them to find? If all that went well, then the colony has a good chance of surviving whatever winter can throw at them. Just don’t forget to put your mouse-guard on. What are your beekeeping weapons of choice against winter’s fury?

— gReader