All things honey

Exploring the world of the sticky delight, which takes a leading role in Rosh Hashana celebrations.

Bees in their natural habitat (photo credit: DVORAT HATAVOR)
Bees in their natural habitat
(photo credit: DVORAT HATAVOR)
Jews are blessed with myriad traditions, but at this time of year we particularly relish the nostalgic memory of sticky honey. And what a paradox is this sweetest of delights! For one thing, honey comes from a non-kosher insect. For another, dissolved honey, like yeast, causes fermentation, which also symbolizes the willful way we can boil over with pride, conceit and arrogance.
Honey is tricky to harvest, and everyone knows that a tiny bee can bring fear to our hearts with its fearsome sting.
Still, every Rosh Hashana, we fall in love with honey all over again and enthusiastically ask for a good and sweet year. Soon after sharing the blessing, we sink a slice of apple into good raw honey – and the deal is sealed.
It is traditional to serve honey with every major meal from Rosh Hashana until after Succot. Lekach, or honey cake, is often the answer to this tradition, as little is more delicious than a honey-sweetened cake.
Of course, the homemaker will use a fair amount of oil, eggs, salt and baking powder, but ancient recipes abound for a traditional honey cake baked with an equal weight of white rye flour and dark honey, strong coffee, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and maybe some golden raisins and slivered almonds decorating the top.
The practice of honey collection and beekeeping dates back to biblical times, and is also evident in cave paintings. Rabbinical interpretation of the honey the Torah mentions is that it comes from the fig or date; however, in the Book of Judges (14:9), the mighty Samson discovers the carcass of a lion with a swarm of bees and honey inside. Clearly, in this instance, the viscous substance is understood to be from a honeycomb.
The Mishna states, “That which comes from something that is not kosher, is not kosher, and that which comes from something that is kosher, is kosher.” But honey, produced by the non-kosher bee, is still a kosher foodstuff. That’s because it is not a direct secretion of the bee, but is produced via the enzymes within the insect, and it is “cooked” on the comb, not inside the insect.
Thank goodness.
More than 80 percent (81.2% to be exact) of honey is sugars and starches; consumption of a teaspoon of the golden liquid will immediately convert itself into energy. Honey is second to none in food value; one pound of the stuff contains a whopping 1,475 calories and 17 grams of sugar.
It is also an easily digestible, pure food and is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts and holds water. Its antibacterial qualities even fend off allergies.
Honey is first mentioned in the Torah as one of the gifts Jacob sends with his sons when they go down to Egypt to seek food during the famine. Thereafter, it is written that manna, the daily food on which the Israelites survived for the 40 years they were wandering to the Promised Land, tasted like “wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). Little wonder that biblical references to Israel repeatedly refer to it as the “land of milk and honey.”
WE HAVE an essential need for bees to pollinate our fruit and vegetables. One-third of the food we eat depends on insect pollination, mostly by honeybees. It has been said that the world would be better off if everyone kept them.
The Israeli food chain is interconnected with bees, and there are more than 850 indigenous species of bees here, and more than 25,000 species of bee worldwide.
Still, there is only one variety that produces honey, and that is the apis, otherwise known as the honeybee.
The earliest data show that honeybee colonies have been buzzing away for longer than anyone can remember, and today the Israeli Honey Board supports 500 apiaries. Israeli beehives number approximately 100,000 – no small achievement.
A bee colony has only one queen bee, so she is considerably more valuable because she is entirely in charge of producing eggs for the colony for the three years of her life. A colony also buzzes with the unruly sound of several thousand sterile worker bees. Honeybees represent a highly organized society, with various bees having specific roles during their lifetimes: nurses, guards, grocers, housekeepers, construction workers, royal attendants, undertakers and foragers, to name some. Each hive will collect 30 kg. of pollen each year, a pretty big achievement.
There are many types, colors and flavors of honey, depending on the source of the nectar the bees collected to make it. In the name of originality, you might find unusual flavors this year – perhaps carob honey from Morocco, or Tawari honey from New Zealand. But quality beekeepers aren’t fooled by these marketing gimmicks.
Beekeeper Boaz Ben-Ze’ev has been running the family apiary, Dvorat Hatavor, in Moshav Shadmot Devora, for more than 24 years. With preparations under way for Rosh Hashana, he whispers a little-known truth to The Jerusalem Post: “Israelis should not waste their efforts on imported honey.
Local honey, wherever you are living, is better for you, as it helps with allergies you might have from local flowers. You don’t need to improve your body’s immune system to flowers from the Amazon, so Amazonian honey shouldn’t be on your table.”
ONE OF the tragedies of our time is that bees have been dying in remarkable numbers since 2005. Mites, viruses and insecticides are now understood to be the culprits. The epidemic, known as colony collapse disorder, has caused beekeepers to lose between 7% and 25% of their colonies, according to the International Bee Research Association’s 2010 report on findings from across Canada, China, Europe, Israel and Turkey.
In America, more than 10 million beehives have been lost at a cost of $200 a hive since 2006, according to a report on honeybee health from the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The cost of replacing all those dead hives in America alone is approximately $2 billion. The situation is also severe in Israel, with reports showing that as many as half of the apiaries have been affected; there is concern that beekeepers will be driven to choose another business as a result.
Researchers believe the ultimate culprit is a parasitic mite, varroa. The mite does not respond to treatment and probably weakens the bees, which are then vulnerable to a relatively new class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. These insecticides are thought to inhibit the sense of smell – crucial for finding food.
Help is at hand. Prof. Ilan Sela of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem heads the Bee Research Center, and in 2012 he received accolades for his groundbreaking research that helped develop a treatment for infected bees. He went on to co-found Beeologics, a biotech company that has, among other treatments, developed Remebee, a product that protects bees from Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. Sweet.
Meanwhile, the European Commission has limited the use of three pesticides to see if this reduces the decline in bee colonies. In 2014, the commission published the results of its study on honeybee colony mortality and noted that the decline seemed to be smaller than in previous years, although regional differences in colony losses were substantial.
Perhaps with this news, old and new beekeepers will consider rejuvenating the bee industry. An online campaign from Australia caught the public’s imagination earlier this year, with the announcement of a new hive that is less messy, fussy and demanding than traditional hives. The developers of this innovative beehive were father-and-son beekeepers Stuart and Cedar Anderson of New South Wales, Australia; they saw the market potential in redesigning the current hive, which has not changed much since it was first introduced in 1852.
Traditional hives require the beekeeper to smoke out the bees before dismantling the hive to remove the honey.
“Anyone can do it, you can put them in your backyard, but they are fierce creatures that sting and need certain care,” the Andersons explained. “Beekeeping is our family tradition, and we thought there had to be a better way of harvesting the honey that was gentle on the bees and easier for the beekeepers.”
An astonishing $12.2 million has now been generated by sales of the new Flow Hive, which employs “a clear end-frame view so the beekeeper can see when the honey is ready without opening up the hive. The extraction process is so gentle, the bees barely notice at all. With less stress on the bees, it is an easier job for the beekeeper.”
The cost of a hive with six frames is $600, and as the Andersons announced, “our range offers enough flexibility to be perfect for everyone, from the ‘newbee’ starting from scratch to the most experienced ‘beeks’ [bee geeks].”
It is illuminating to note that a verse in the Grace After Meals praises Israel’s seven species of fruit and grain. This includes honey, whose sweetness and essential value is easily overlooked, but is still powerful – just like us.