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The Royal Glands of the Honey Bee

By: Ed Erwin

The Hypopharyngeal glands could easily be considered “The Royal Glands of the Honey Bee”! These royal glands secrete a substance known as Royal Jelly and are distinguishable by the high levels of nutrients. Royal jelly is a viscous substance secreted by worker nurse bees and is responsible for stimulating their growth and development as well as being the essential food for the queen and larvae.

Located in the head of young nurse bees, the hypopharyngeal

gland consists of a pair of long food glands coiled bilaterally in

front of the brain, between compound eyes and below the

pharynx (an opening near the respiratory and digestive tracts).

The gland is composed of thousands of two-cell units, a secretory

cell and a duct cell designed to produce and discharge the jelly.         

These glands are also sometimes known as the “brood food glands." ”The term “Royal Jelly” (“gelee ryale”) was coined by well-known Entomologist Francois Huber of Switzerland in 1792.

Although hypopharyngeal glands are undeveloped when the bee first emerges, their glands develop fully within 6 – 12 days as long as pollen is available. Once the bee starts foraging the glands usually stop working.

For bees, pollen is the primary source of the ten amino acids and lipids needed to build protein. Most of the pollen gathered is consumed by nurse bees, and the nutrition absorbed from that pollen is then secreted as royal jelly from their hypopharyngeal glands. This jelly is fed to all young larvae, including workers, drones and queens. An exclusive diet of royal jelly is what causes the development of the queen’s reproductive organs. It’s also responsible for her size and longer life span.

When the honey bee emerges from its pupal stage it is considered an adult. After about three days the royal jelly is mixed with bee bread (a mixture of whole pollen, honey, and enzymes), and then fed to the workers and drones until they spin their cocoons. As previously mentioned, the queens receive a steady diet of royal jelly (no bee bread) throughout their entire larval development.

The worker honey bee also produces invertase in the hypopharyngeal glands. Invertase is a salivary enzyme that hydrolyzes (breaks down) sucrose and other enzymes. Research has shown that invertase is also a honey preservative.

Consumption of pollen and carbohydrates is dependent on the bee’s age. During the first three to five days of an adult worker’s life, pollen is consumed, and the body weight increases by 25 – 50%. During this period, the bee's body fat increases along with the development of their hypopharyngeal glands and other internal organs.

Activity of the glands not only depend on the age of workers, but also their food and only when in direct contact with brood. Studies have shown that there is a signal from honey bee brood that causes the nurse bees to synthesize the proteins from the hypopharyngeal glands. In this instance the term brood refers to a combination of eggs, larvae and pupae.

This trigger from existence of brood is known as epigenetic activity and in this case, it’s associated with the genetics of female bees. This epigenetic change determines whether the hypopharyngeal gland are turned on or off and the production of protein in cells. This helps to ensure that the cells produce the necessary proteins.

Benefits of Royal Jelly to Humans

Although the use of royal jelly used by humans is controversial, it is believed that it boosts the immune system and memory. It’s also considered to improve the cardiovascular system, promote longevity, and reinvigorates the body. A major ingredient of royal jelly is Pantothenic acid which is useful in treating some bone and joint disorders. Some studies show, when this acid is injected, symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis tend to subside. Royal jelly is also used as an alternative medicine in treating menopausal symptoms. And because it contains bifidobacterial (a beneficial bacteria), it is taken to support digestive health. Taken by capsules or naturally (as it comes from the hive) it tastes a little like honey, but with a sour, bitter, or acidic complex flavor, tasting a bit like medicine.

It’s now obvious royal jelly’s complex manufacturing and benefits
 to the honey bees as well as humans is remarkable. Just one
more fascinating aspect hidden in the world of Apis Malifera.

Ed Erwin -

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