Royal jelly, which is sometimes called bee's milk, is a thick creamy liquid secreted by special glands in young worker bees who serve as "nurses" to the hive.
All bee larvae are fed a small amount of royal jelly mixed with honey for the first three days of their lives. Starting on day four, however, most of the bees are weaned from this diet and develop into worker bees. But one bee, hatched from an egg identical to the rest, is fed exclusively on royal jelly. That bee becomes the queen. She will grow, on average, 40% larger than her fellow bees, perhaps 50% heavier, and live up to 40 or 50 times as long. And all the while, she will be producing enormous numbers of eggs, equal to more than twice her own body weight, every single day.
This phenomenon has led numerous researchers and practitioners to explore both the chemical composition and the potential therapeutic uses of royal jelly, particularly over the last several decades. Among other things, the complex substance has been found to be rich in amino acids (including the eight essential to human life), essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, RNA, DNA, and many other elements of clinically proven usefulness. Other compounds in royal jelly have yet to be identified.
Proponents of apitherapy (which also includes the use of other hive products, such as bee pollen, propolis, and bee venom) make many claims for the virtues of royal jelly. Among other things, it is said to increase appetite and general vigor; retard aging; boost longevity; accelerate healing; strengthen the immune system; and exhibit antibiotic and antiviral properties. Specific claims for royal jelly have been made in connection with Parkinson's disease and other nervous disorders; arthritis; and reproductive and sexual functioning.
Clinical studies over the last several decades have reported evidence supporting some of these claims, including shrinking tumors in mice, reducing cholesterol levels in humans, fighting microbial and viral infections, and reducing the trembling associated with Parkinson's disease. These accounts are case reports only, however, and not the results of controlled clinical trials.
Royal jelly is available in various forms. In its pure state, it is a jelly that must be kept under refrigeration. It is also found in honey, which works to preserve it naturally.
Synthetic royal jelly has also been manufactured and marketed, but according to some sources, it does not produce the same effects, on either bees or human subjects, in clinical trials.
Although apitherapy proponents maintain that royal jelly is not only entirely safe but almost miraculously beneficial, a number of deaths have been linked to its use. Australian researchers have reported cases of asthma said to have been induced by royal jelly (including at least one death), and a Japanese report blames royal jelly for causing a case of gastroenteritis. More research is needed, however, to clearly determine the connection between royal jelly and potential allergic reactions.
Some side effects have been reported for royal jelly, including occasional central nervous system symptoms, agitation, heart palpitations, insomnia, and anxiety.
No instances of interactions with other medications have been reported.
Cassileth, Barrie R. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
American Apitherapy Society. 5390 Grande Road, Hillsboro, OH 45133. (937) 364-1108. http://www.apitherapy.org/.