Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Royal Jelly

One day in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, a vendor extolled the virtues of royal jelly, the substance created by honeybees to feed their queen, to a glamorous Italian woman. My sister, incogneets, of course, watched as he demonstrated the topical application on his own face, likened royal jelly to the fountain of youth, and promised that regular use of the substance would erase years from the Italian woman's life. The vendor had found his target population for sure: foreign, with money to spend, and deeply concerned about wrinkles.

Royal jelly has been touted as a miracle substance for centuries. I've often wondered how, back in the day, anyone thought that a cactus might be edible. I feel the same way about royal jelly-- who came up with this idea of bee food as topical cream? I imagine some wacky Ancient Egyptian beekeeper discovering the queen's special stash of R.J. in the hive and smearing it all over her face. Why? We'll never know. But something stuck, because royal jelly is hawked worldwide as a miracle, from Burt's Bees products to vendors in the Mekong Delta.

Personally, it seems a bit too precious of an idea to be true: only food fit for a queen contains the secret of youth, blah blah blah. As I've mentioned many times before, the queen ain't all that. She's a baby-making machine, so her food must be pretty nourishing, but it still doesn't follow that it makes sense to smear it on the outside of one's body. Conceptually, perhaps. A conception that, like so many, falls apart in reality.

The seller had an answer for haters like me: "You can eat it too!" he explained of the 2 oz. bottle of royal jelly that cost more than the aggregate costs of my sister's six month journey through Southeast Asia. Although theoretically, eating royal jelly makes more sense to me in terms of deriving health benefits, it seems strangely naive to liken the nutritional needs of a queen bee to those of an adult human. In "Royal Jelly" by Ronald Dahl, a father forcefully feeds his underweight newborn royal jelly. (It is an incredibly creepy, yet strangely informational short story that is highly recommended reading.) The father explains to his wife:

"Practically nobody in the world can afford to buy royal jelly just for eating except maybe one or two multimillionaires. The people who buy it are the ones who make women's face creams and things like that. They're using it as a stunt. They mix a tiny pinch of it into a big jar of face cream and it's selling like hot cakes for absolutely enormous prices. They claim it takes out the wrinkles."

We are obsessed with youth! Why youth? What I mean is, why is youth so cherished, why is aging so desperately feared? Fine, aesthetics. Health. But we tend to collectively forget most of the unsexy aspects of youth, like having to go to bed at specific times, having to eat things we didn't like, puberty, braces and, later on, being broke. Plus, is there no beauty in a lined face?

All worker bees follow the same lifeline. They begin their lives as nurse bees, then become builders, architects, until finally they become foragers. Bees must go through a training period before foraging. During this period they practice flying short distances, presumably learn the waggle dance, build up their wing strength, you know, normal bee stuff. You can tell which ones are foragers-in-training outside the hive: they're the tentative little dudes (gender neutral, because all foragers are necessarily female) making circles that grow over time.

Foraging, in my opinion, is the best part for honeybees, a pleasure afforded only to the oldest folks in the hive. They get to go explore all the flowers in the hood! Healthy honeybees will forage until their bodies wear out: tattered wings, limbs missing, cockeyed, perhaps. Hopefully they die in the fields among the flowers. Otherwise they'll be carried out by their sisters and deposited as far away from the hive as possible. (Honeybees are impeccably tidy.)

Bees got it right, in my opinion: save the best for last. Imagine if we were constantly looking ahead, waiting for wisdom. We'd be excited by wrinkles and balding. We'd write songs called "Forever Old." Retirement would be like spring break in Cancun.

I might eat royal jelly if, and this is a big if, I realize, somebody convinced me that by eating it I would become a bee, like in Dahl's story, but only for one day and not in the winter. Imagine the secrets that would be revealed to me! Who is behind the hive mind?!?

The same sister, plagued with unquenchable wanderlust, loves this quote from Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible,and I believe it is an apt way to wrap up this rambling post:

"To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I've only found sorrow."

I don't want to be obsessed with youth when I am old. I want to enjoy it now, live it, use it, celebrate it. But when it's gone, and I'm not sure that it ever really leaves, I will look in the mirror at a face marked with change, and hopefully I will smile with the knowledge that I really, truly lived the life I'd imagined.


  1. I'm 25 years old and often mistaken for 17. Most of the time after a fellow adult mistakes me for a high schools student they put me (or themselves) at ease by telling me that I'll be happy about looking young when I'm older.

    I'd actually much prefer to always look my age. I've packed my 25 years with experiences that have made me the person who I am. If you look closely, you can see scars from obstacles I've proudly overcome and laugh lines left from moments of silly bliss with my friends and family. In this sense my body is like a map that records important moments in my life. I'll happily keep scuffing my knees to have the extraordinary life I'm looking for!

  2. I look forward to getting old. Old age is the perfect excuse for any normally awkward public behavior-- squeezing every single peach in the supermarket, offering unsolicited advice to strangers, enthusiastically misusing slang terms, singing to plants. Being old is gonna be great!

  3. Royal Jelly is a natural product. Helps you to maintain health, beauty and youth. It has ability to boost physical and mental performance.


  4. "Royal Jelly" was great! Read it back long time ago. But then I think the story was featured as a TV show back in the early 80s. Have to look that one up.

    Will get back to you soon about youth and books and buying honey from the Saturday farmer's market here in Eugene.


  5. Hey Cara!
    It's Shea your cousin. Your mom gave me the address for your blog. I think it is awesome!

  6. I really like how the smokers is poking into that picture of you! keep up the good work this blog is fabulous!

  7. the annoyed look on my face is due to the fact that my mom was smoking ME rather than the bees.