What Makes a Queen Bee a Queen Bee?

Gwen Pearson Science

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. Read more.