A royal jelly factory in New Zealand

Editor’s note: Our international correspondent spent the second leg of her beekeeping trip in New Zealand. So far, she has written three articles about her New Zealand adventures, but we are waiting for final permission to publish the first two. Today’s story is about grafting larvae with the ultimate goal of harvesting royal jelly.

We wake up at 5:30, slap together some sandwiches, and I wrestle a bee suit that’s two extras too large. An hour later, we’re on site, pulling fresh brood from a yard of nucs. There aren’t many bees inside—the strong colonies were taken to the honey flow long ago—but nevertheless we pull two or three frames per colony. In total, we need three boxes (30 frames) of graftable brood and one box of sealed brood. We’ll use the sealed brood later to bolster the starter colonies.

Pulling brood means finding queens, and I’m no good at finding queens when I want to convince people that I’m good at finding queens. When I’m nervous, I forget what I’m doing and wind up missing the queen for the bees. I start admiring and stop searching. My eyes catch on emerging bees, pale yellow birthdays, bustling workers, and bumbling drones. I turn the frames over in my hands, observing without assessing, tucking the queen back into her hive, completely oblivious. I usually miss a couple this way before I have no more cool to lose, and then I can relax and do the job right.

Queen larva floating in royal jelly. Wikimedia photo by pollinator "The Old Drone"
Queen larva floating in royal jelly. Wikimedia photo by pollinator "The Old Drone"

It takes us a few hours to find sufficient frames. Then at 9:30 we head to the grafting shed, which is a small shack in a big field with a bench, some stools, and a radio. We turn on the generator, hunch over our frames, and begin scooping up larvae almost too small to see. We place these larvae into plastic queen cups. There are three rows of cups on each frame and twenty cups per row. The experts average a sixty per cent success rate. These guys have been grafting six days a week since Christmas, and some of them are on their second or third year.

The queen cup frames are destined for starter colonies. These are colonies kept in a perpetually queenless, orphan frenzy. We transfer the queen cups to starter colonies in the afternoon, and we feed them a dollop of pollen goop and a splash of sugar syrup. We also provide sealed brood to maintain the starter colony population. Frantic to grow a queen, these bees pile royal jelly into the queen cups.

We pull out the frames the next day and use a machine to remove the eggs and suck out the jelly. The jelly goes to a royal jelly packer who wraps it in capsules and sells it as a nutritional supplement. I haven’t seen the machine that sucks out the jelly, but I bet it looks like an octopus.

It takes us 4 hours to reach our grafting quota. In between larvae, I hold my grafting tool in my mouth, and I bet I consume a good capsule and a half of royal jelly this way. It’s bitter. Actually, it tastes like the stuff we spray on the TV remote at home to keep my dog from chewing on the batteries. But this stuff is nutritious, and if I want to lay 2,000 eggs a day, I had better take my supplement!

Maggie
HoneyBeeSuite

Hives in New Zealand.
Hives in New Zealand.

Comments

Amy
Reply

Interesting stuff about queen rearing and royal jelly.

Nancy
Reply

Then do you put the frames back in the nucs to collect more jelly? And at what point do you quit and let them raise the queens? And the royal jelly is a food supplement for who? Er, whom?

Emily
Reply

Very interesting, thank you. I’m a bit sceptical about royal jelly being much use to humans though, I tend to think it’s best left for the bees. Especially as I don’t want to lay 2,000 eggs a day!

Sarah
Reply

I feel sorry for the bees who are “kept in a perpetually queenless, orphan frenzy” all for a supplement we don’t need.

Nancy
Reply

Sarah, thanks for saying what I as a rather new visitor, didn’t want to come right out with. Why does this operation make me think of veal calves in confinement feeding operations?

Giving them a good enough environment to make surplus honey, is like milking my goats after they’ve weaned their kids and still have plenty of good browsing. Manipulating them into producing surplus jelly in an abnormal family structure, where they are deprived of the normal gratification of queen pheromones, sounds like torture… just so some aging (and gullible!) narcissist somewhere can indulge their denial of death. And doesn’t it just give more fuel to those who attack beekeepers for “exploiting the bees”? Rusty?

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

Yes, I believe it is naive to think royal jelly is health food (see this post) and I also believe collecting it is exploitative. That said, I want to be careful not to blame the messenger. I learned something from Maggie’s post and I appreciate her shedding light on this questionable practice. I really had no idea how it was done.

Sarah
Reply

It is exploitation of honey bees.

Sarah
Reply

I don’t blame Maggie and the post is informative, but my conscience would not allow me to participate in something I believe is animal cruelty. Just buying eggs from the store makes me feel guilty, though.

BTW, Rusty, how do you hold down a hive cover when it isn’t flat on top? I like the cover you had an article about recently, but I didn’t notice in the picture that it was being weighed down in any way.

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

On my top-bar hives I use two hook-and-eye type fasteners, like the kind that you would use on a gate. I put the hook part at the center bottom of each end of the roof and the eye part on the hive body. Then, when I put on the roof, I just hook the ends in place.

On my Langstroths, I use a tie-down strap.

Maggie
Reply

Nancy, in answer to your first question: We don’t put the frames straight back in the hives. The eggs are removed with the royal jelly, leaving the queen cups empty, so back into the assembly line they go. To my knowledge, the starter colonies are used all season long. That means they are never allowed to raise queens. I would be surprised if they overwinter.

Rusty’s right- I’m not endorsing the industry, just explaining my experience with it. Personally, I’ll stick to strawberry jelly on my sandwiches.

Rusty, I like your post on royal jelly as a health food, especially the termite analogy.

Nancy
Reply

Maggie –
Thanks for the additional information. No, I certainly didn’t think you were endorsing the practice. In fact, your clear-cut reporting left readers pretty free to make their own judgments.

As a stockwomen, I have to defend the practice of meat-eating to militant vegans. My view:
http:/shadygrovefarm.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/food-for-reflection/. I cringe when reports of animal abuse just give them more ammunition. But like Rusty, I’d rather be informed than not. Appreciate the dialogue!

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