Unexpected Israel: Honey with a sting in the ‘tale’

April 23, 2015 21:19
Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees. (photo credit: INGIMAGE PHOTOS)


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According to the Bible, God spoke to Moses at the burning bush promising to bring the Children of Israel to a “good and spacious land, flowing with milk and honey.”

Honey is mentioned in the Bible about 20 times but rabbinical sources maintain that this refers to syrup from dates or figs, not to honey from bees.

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This view was called into question in 2007 when archeologists excavated the Iron Age town of Tel Rehov in the Jordan Valley. Here they unearthed a number of clay cylinders, identified as beehives on the basis of evidence from ancient Egyptian wall paintings. 

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They concluded that these cylinders were the remains of a large apiary dating back 3,000 years and that an estimated 200 hives would have housed more than one million bees, indicating that this was a highly sophisticated industry.

Each hive measured 80 cm. long and 40cm. diameter with a flap on one side to allow the bees to enter and a lid on the other side to access the honeycomb. The cylinders were stacked on top of each other, as seen in the sketch above.

Surprisingly, the remains of bees found in the hives revealed that they originated in Turkey.

Prof. Amihai Mazar, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said, “This is a very special discovery as we had no previous evidence of bringing creatures from such a distance, especially bees, which represents a complicated and sophisticated type of agriculture.”

It suggests that extensive international trading in commodities existed at the time and this export/import of bees may well have been one of the first examples of an Israeli “start-up.”

Honeybees have always been essential to mankind. In ancient times honey was used as a medicine and for sweetening food, while beeswax was valued as a sealant, a lubricant and for making candles.

But more crucial is the role that honeybees play in nature. It is estimated that they are responsible for 25 percent of the world’s pollination, providing vital sources of food.

Without the bees’ sterling activities, our food supplies would be sadly depleted.

In Israel, there are around 1,100 species of bees. Bee pollination, provided by some 60,000 hives, is vital for Israeli agriculture, for example, the avocado crop, which is totally dependent on bees to survive.

This vision of an ominous future was brought to our attention recently because of the disappearance of many bee colonies throughout the world as a result of colony collapse disorder (CCD). Some 80% of honeybees in the US have been lost in this way.

In China, wild bees have sadly been eradicated from fruit orchards in the southwest, probably from the overuse of pesticides and the loss of their natural habitat. China’s solution is to hand-pollinate their trees.

Workers carry pots of pollen and dab the pollen on every blossom with a paintbrush.

Small children are enlisted to climb to the tops of the trees to reach the highest flowers.

The very thought of such a project is awesome. It is about possible to do this in a country with massive manpower but is not viable for most other nations.

Farmers can, however, plant strips of wild flowers on their land and leave patches of vegetation to encourage the return of a wide range of insects, especially bees.

Little is known for certain about the causes of CCD. It may be a parasite, a virus, or the excessive use of certain pesticides. In Israel, Prof. Ilan Sela of the Hebrew University discovered the Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), which is linked to CCD. The treatment he developed, together with a US company, has rehabilitated up to 70% of the hives on which it was tested.

Attention is also being focused on the effect of pesticides in common use. They may not kill off the bees, but they have been proven to inhibit them from foraging for food. Normally bees from a single hive can cover up to 100 square kilometers of territory checking on the availability of nectar. They then return and perform a ‘waggle dance’ for the other bees in the hive – their way of passing on crucial information regarding the location of nectar. It is a mesmerizing activity to observe.

Regular pollen supplies are also essential to sustain a bee colony. In Israel, scientists have developed special strains of both eucalyptus and acacia trees, which blossom several times a year, so as to maintain a steady nectar supply for the bees.

A fascination with bees is shared by a growing number of devotees, perhaps prompted by this world crisis. In the UK, Steve Benbow is one such character. Passionately interested in insect life since childhood, as an adult, with no experience, he built his own hive on a London rooftop 10 years ago.

Today, he is responsible for hives on the roofs of some of London’s most prestigious buildings including Harrods, the National Gallery and both Tate Galleries.

At Fortnum & Mason, that elegant emporium of food and fashion, Benbow cares for four beehives, where the bees have the luxury of five-star accommodation in architect- designed hives constructed using Fortnum & Mason’s well-known house colors of green and gold. In the spring and summer months it is possible to visit the hives and buy a sample of their honey – a very different experience to shopping on Oxford Street.

Back in Israel, bees served another essential role, in a tale once known only to a few, one of whom is my traveling companion, Alon.

He grew up on Kibbutz Dan near the border with Lebanon during the British Mandate.

In 1941, the Allied army invaded Syria and Lebanon, then controlled by Vichy France, to prevent Nazi Germany from gaining a stronghold in the north.

Alon remembers Australia and New Zealand troops coming to the kibbutz at night to hand over weapons captured from the French. The soldiers felt a special kinship with the kibbutz members as they too had a farming background. As a child, Alon found it somewhat confusing that, whilst part of the British Army – the ANZACs – were friendly; others, such as the Military Police, were quite the opposite. They would frequently descend on the kibbutz and create havoc, turning everything upside down in their search for arms.

The kibbutzniks came up with a novel hiding place for their weapons. They dug holes directly beneath the beehives into which they secreted the guns. When the Military Police came to investigate, a member of the kibbutz was waiting in hiding. As the MPs approached he would pull a wire attached to the hive. The flap opened and the bees swarmed out. Needless to say the MPs beat a hasty retreat.

An early example of Israelis thinking outside the box?

Ruth Corman, who lives both in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer.

Her next book, Unexpected Israel, is due to be published later this year.


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