Halachos of the Hive

December 5, 2004

For thousands of years, the multiple uses and nutritional benefits of bees’ honey have been widely recognized. To produce honey, bees collect the nectar of plants, and ripen it in a special honey-sac or crop. There, through enzymatic action, it is converted into a product that is largely a combination of fructose and glucose, which we recognize as honey.

The basis for the kosher status of honey is discussed by the Gemara in Bechorot 7b. After all, the general principle is that anything that emanates from a non-kosher source, is itself non-kosher. How can bees’ honey be considered kosher if bees are non-kosher insects?

The Gemara offers two explanations: One is that since bees do not secrete honey from their bodies but rather only convert the collected nectar, their honey is permissible. According to this reason, honey from other insects, which is likewise non-secreted, would also be permitted.

In its second, more limiting opinion, the Gemara rules that there is a Scriptural exception which permits only bees’ honey. According to this opinion, honey from other insects is not included in the Scriptural exception and is thus not kosher. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 81: 1, 9) cites both opinions, without clearly deciding the matter. The halachah, following the rule that we are stringent on a question on a Biblical law would prohibit such products.

Honey is not the only product produced by bees. Recently, there has been growing interest in a different bee product, royal jelly. Because of its purported benefits (none of them proven) in strengthening the body’s immune system and in contributing to physical and emotional health, royal jelly has become a much sought after commodity in health stores.

Is royal jelly kosher? Do the principles that determine the Halachic acceptability of honey apply equally to royal jelly? Unlike honey, royal jelly is a glandular secretion and its color is a whitish yellow. Its consistency is creamier and less viscous than honey. Its taste is bitter, although not offensively so. Worker bees produce royal jelly as the initial food for developing larvae, and as the unique diet of the queen-bee-designate. All the other post-larval bees in the hive subsist on the stored honey, and are not fed the royal jelly.

Some have argued that royal jelly should be permitted because it is honey-like, and presumably included in the Scriptural exception as well. But this argument is difficult to support, based on the two reasons cited by the Gemara above. First of all, royal jelly is a glandular secretion, and therefore subject to the general rule of that which comes from an impure (being) is also impure. Also, since it differs in appearance, taste, and function from honey, it should not be included in the Scriptural exception granted to bees’ honey since royal jelly can be considered a totally different food than honey.

Others have contended that royal jelly is not considered fit for human consumption as it is “very bitter” and therefore not subject to any prohibition. This contention, however, is erroneous, for while royal jelly is indeed somewhat tart and bitter, it is by no means inedible even in its pure raw state. This was confirmed by our gentile tester.

Therefore people should be aware that royal jelly is not kosher, and it cannot be regarded in the same light as honey.