Often termed as the ‘milky queen’, Royal Jelly is a sticky, white substance that holds a distinct position in the hive, reserved exclusively for the queen bees. Known as the superfood of the beehive, it is nutrient-dense and about 20 times more expensive than honey.
Interestingly, queen bees live 50 times longer than other bees, and although unproven scientifically, the health food industry passionately attributes this remarkable longevity to Royal Jelly. Today, it’s gaining popularity among people as well, costing around $125 per pound.
Harvesting Royal Jelly
Harvesting Royal Jelly isn’t a walk in the park. It’s a painstaking process that demands precision and care, as it can only be done by hand. An incorrect harvesting process could potentially harm young queen bees. This labor-intensive process contributes to the question – is Royal Jelly truly worth it, and why is it so expensive?
The Royal Jelly Expert
Zuoqiang, a veteran in the field, has spent decades perfecting the art of harvesting Royal Jelly. His dedication takes him on a journey across China, aligning his pursuits with the rapeseed flower season.
With their bright yellow petals spread wide, rapeseed flowers allow bees to gather more nectar and pollen compared to other flowers. This time is particularly favorable for harvesting high-quality Royal Jelly as the beehive population is at its peak.
The Journey of a Beekeeper
Zuoqiang’s passion led him 600 kilometers away to Sheiang County, Hubei Province, where he has been raising his bees. He timed his arrival four months ago to align with the start of the royal jelly harvest.
Understanding the Hive
Hives birth three types of bees – workers (sterile female bees), drones (male bees), and queens (fertile female bees). As larvae, all bees grow in tiny cells and feast on Royal Jelly. But once the queen emerges, she’s the only one privileged to enjoy this exclusive diet.
Maximizing Royal Jelly Production
To optimize royal jelly production, Zuoqiang uses a technique where the queen is separated and placed in a different part of the box away from the hive. This prompts the worker bees to quickly feed all potential queen larvae, a process that takes approximately 72 hours.
The Secret Behind the Harvest
Zuoqiang also creates multiple artificial cells filled with fresh larvae taken from other hives. There are 64 cells in each strip, enabling him to fill thousands of queen cells throughout the harvest. Precisely 72 hours later, Zuoqiang inspects his hives, carefully removing the beeswax seal atop each cell. The task doesn’t end here. Each tiny larva must be delicately removed from the jelly-filled cell, a laborious process that is also done by hand.
This tale of the Royal Jelly and a beekeeper’s journey gives us an insight into the complexities of beekeeping and the reverence for Royal Jelly. Stay tuned to discover more about the ethical and environmental challenges faced in this industry.
Ethical and Environmental Challenges in Royal Jelly Production
The demand for Royal Jelly isn’t the only driving force in this industry; queen larvae are also in high demand among many consumers. This escalating demand has set a new pace for the beekeepers. For instance, to extract just one kilogram of Royal Jelly, Zheochang has to empty no less than 2,000 queen cells. This level of demand isn’t without repercussions, as we’ll see.
Royal Jelly, particularly that sourced from rapeseed flowers in Hubei, can fetch over $250 for a single kilogram in international markets. This is primarily due to its nutrient content. Unlike honey, which is primarily made up of sugar, Royal Jelly contains proteins and other minerals, many of which are still unknown. This nutrient density has led to claims of various health benefits, including acting as an aphrodisiac or even a key to long life. However, most of these claims lack robust scientific validation.
The Royal Jelly Phenomenon: A Closer Look
The fascination with Royal Jelly stems from the observable changes in bees that consume it. Queen bees, the primary consumers of this superfood, grow one and a half times larger than worker bees, live for seven years compared to a worker bee’s six-month lifespan, and can lay up to 3,000 eggs in a day.
However, these differences might not be due to Royal Jelly alone. Studies suggest that a worker bee’s diet of honey and pollen contains natural chemicals that make them infertile.
China’s Production Dominance: A Brief History
China contributes to 90% of the world’s Royal Jelly production. This dominance began in the 1980s when Chinese beekeepers started using a high-yielding bee variety, Apis mellifera ligustica spinola.
This special breed led to a nearly 2,000% surge in Royal Jelly production over the past four decades. Beekeepers like Zuochang have been utilizing these bees for over 30 years.
Despite the astonishing growth, the industry is not without its ethical challenges. Large numbers of larvae are either killed or eaten in the process of Royal Jelly production, raising concerns about the methods used. Lab-grown Royal Jelly exists but lacks the benefits of natural Royal Jelly and can even be lethal to queen bees.
The changing climate and rampant pesticide use on crops are causing a rapid decline in China’s bee population. So much so that some farmers have resorted to pollinating by hand due to the scarcity of bees.
These environmental challenges pose a significant threat to the Royal Jelly industry and the broader ecosystem, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable practices. The world is indeed a community, and collective efforts are needed to safeguard these critical pollinators for the sake of our shared future.