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.

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 example, 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:

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper living in Ealing, west London. I have been keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary since 2008 and created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully - future successes. Busy taking the British Beekeeping Association module exams too!
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34 Responses to Royal Jelly – a story by Roald Dahl

  1. Lindylou says:

    Great news Emily, I hope he stays in your hive for very many years and that he always will love you and his Dad.

    Like

  2. Nikki vane says:

    Emily, what a beautiful post, and most insightful. Good idea not to feed your little drone any Royal jelly!
    All the best
    Nikki

    Like

  3. Lindylou says:

    Emily, me again but now to thank you for posting this exciting scientific news. As far as I am aware it is unknown to beekeepers in this country as yet. I have already passed it to some colleagues who are intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Bean Karen says:

    Fascinating – both about the royal jelly research and the book…off to the library

    Like

  5. Erik says:

    Great news, thank you for sharing! Enjoy the preparations 🙂 The Royal Jelly story sounds interested as well, I added Kiss Kiss to my Christmas list. Not the kind of title from which you’d expect a bee story.

    Like

  6. Alan Jones says:

    I think I remember this story on ITVs Tales of the unexpected, Timothy West played the Beekeeper. Congratulations on your news

    Like

  7. Grower says:

    Interesting post. I had no idea about this story. Great news about your brood. Congratulations!

    Like

  8. Eddy Winko says:

    My sister gave me Kiss Kiss about 15 years ago and I still haven’t turned a page, that is soon to change thanks to you 🙂 Mind you all that kissing can lead to all sorts, so congratulations! 🙂

    Like

  9. beatingthebounds says:

    I first came across Roald Dahl’s short stories in our School Library, and then felt highly superior, shortly thereafter, when the TV series ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ was a huge hit with my friends. Soon after I came across his novel ‘My Uncle Oswald’, I can’t think that was in the school library. My Mum and Dad heard me laughing when I was reading it, and ‘confiscated’ it to check on its suitability. I then had to listen to them both laughing their way through it before they eventually gave me it back.
    Like Dahl’s tales, your story has an unexpected twist at the end – or two, with the research and the personal news. Congratulations!

    Like

    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks for bringing up My Uncle Oswald. Having read the plot online, I’ve realised I haven’t read the whole novel but only the rather risqué short stories he appears in. Another one to get from the library!

      Like

      • beatingthebounds says:

        ‘Rather risqué’ is a pretty fair description of the novel, if memory serves me right (it is over 30 years since I read it). I think I still have a copy somewhere, might have to look it out!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Congratulations!
    You are right about Dahl’s science. I have used part of his story “Bitch” (part of the Switch Bitch collection) in lectures as it provides one of the best lay descriptions of the interaction of a hormone with its target site. The story is also risque for its time and still makes me smile. And it begins with honey!!

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  11. Congratulations! Two announcements making a big splash. I had not heard about that work on the development of queen bees. It is so fascinating to think it is the opposite of what we are given to understand. It makes the workers seem even sadder – being chemically sterilised. And yet without the queen the genes must be reactivated to create laying workers? Amelia

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    • Emily Scott says:

      I’m not a scientist so am not sure about the terminology of the genes being “reactivated”, but the change in pheromones caused by a missing queen stimulates the workers to lay. However their ovaries are still very small compared to those of a queen and of course they have no sperm stored. A queen’s ovaries have 150-180 egg producing ovarioles, compared to 2-12 in a worker ovary. Incidentally there is a South African sub-species of honey bee (the Cape honey bee) which produces workers capable of laying fertilised eggs through a handy process called thelytokous parthenogenesis.

      Like

  12. This is a great post. I learned about Royal Jelly, all stuff I never knew or heard before. Raising bees is really a science. It was interesting on the creation of a queen by gene manipulation too.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Thanks Donna. I see a lot of beauty products containing royal jelly, which is a shame really as there’s no evidence it benefits humans – I think it’s better off left with the bees as it’s really them who benefit from it.

      Like

  13. P&B says:

    Very interesting story. I will have to look for the book. Also, thank you for the references.
    And, Congratulations!

    Like

  14. Pingback: Royal Jelly – a story by Roald Dahl | Nick's Bees

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