Land of silk and honey

Visitors to Dvorat Hatavor are in for a horde of sweet surprises.

emek bees 88 298 (photo credit: )
emek bees 88 298
(photo credit: )
In the late l960s Israeli agronomist Yigal Ben-Zeev spent a year in Iran teaching local shepherds the ins and outs of rearing and herding sheep. They, in turn, taught the moshavnik from Shadmot Dvorah the art of rearing silkworms. Years later, back on their homestead in the shadow of Mount Tabor just off the second-century BCE Silk Road, Ben-Zeev and his artist wife, Malka, turned the clock back by creating the only silkworm breeding farm in the country while developing a successful honey production business. Today the Dvorat Hatavor enterprise, created in the Ben-Zeev backyard, is a beehive of activity with hundreds of visitors entering the busy buzzing world of bees and silent - but far from threadbare - realm of Sabra silkworms. It is possible to extract about one kilogram of thread, created essentially from the worms' spittle, from some 50,000 cocoons created by the mulberry leaf-eating silk producers. After they become butterflies, their lifespan is a mere three days, but during that short time they manage to lay hundreds of eggs. Malka Ben-Zeev specializes in silk prints on material made from threads manufactured at Dvorat Hatavor. Because there is no silk weaving facility in Israel, the home-grown and spun thread is sent to Thailand - where she originally studied - to be turned into top-quality silk, which is then returned to sender. Until a few years ago, Malka taught fiber and textile art at the University of Haifa. A member of the Fiber Artists Association, she attended courses at Hampton Court in England, where two pieces of her artwork are permanently on display. Her works have also been exhibited at London's Alexandra Palace and throughout Israel. What was once a barn behind the Ben-Zeev family abode is now a small working museum detailing the production of honey and royal jelly, using honey extraction methods of yesteryear. Learning about honey making is a finger-licking experience for both adults and children with Winnie the Pooh yearnings for the sticky stuff. Dvorat Hatavor's land of silk and honey comprises several stations that visitors pass through, accompanied by a well-versed guide. A charismatic grey-haired, bushy-mustached grandfather, Yigal Ben-Zeev started our tour by sitting us down on low benches in the museum area and telling us about the world of bees, their queen and the liquid gold produced on her behalf. First he told of his childhood on the Shadmot Dvorah farm, where his parents had set up home. Using various props - the children in our group's favorite was a big bouncy friendly-looking sculpted bee on the end of a pole with matching sunflower perched on another - Ben-Zeev described a day in the life of a worker bee buzzing off to find pollen, and what goes on in the hive as the queen reigns industriously over her personal in-house manufacturing plant. We heard about the different types of honey and what makes them different, the healing capacities of honey and honey products - particularly Royal Jelly - and everyone gets a small plastic cup of pure honey straight from a huge sticky vat. From the museum-cum-demonstration room, we moved to the courtyard, where a young lady explained all about the special boots, clothing and wide net-covered helmet worn by apiarists. She then donned the gear and, looking like an old-fashioned astronaut, lumbered off toward a large enclosed area where four or five active beehives are set up. She entered through a door in the netting, blowing smoke from a special piece of equipment to keep bees away from her. We stood safely on the other side of the netting and glass panels, watching in awe as she removed the lid from one of the hives and pulled out a tray with hundreds of bees seemingly squashed on top of one another, honey dripping in dollops from the corners as she held it up close to the window for us to get a closer view, much to the delight of the children. After dealing with the bees, honey and smoking guns, we moved to another large barn containing the unique silkworm farm. After a few minutes the same young lady joined us - minus the protective clothing - and began an upbeat and interesting explanation about silkworms. Both the children and the adults were fascinated as she explained how silk production in China was a closely guarded secret for a long time, the silk thread cocoons having been discovered in the back garden of a royal palace by a princess out for an afternoon stroll, who initially thought they were edible. Put into a pot of boiling water to be cooked, the secret of the cocoon unraveled into one continuous thread - a discovery that led to the beginnings of the silk trade. A palace and a princess - the little girls were hooked! At the end of the hour-and-a-half tour, we each got to make a beeswax candle to take home, as well as a small cup of honey-based chocolate. As if that wasn't enough to scuttle the weekly diet plan, there is a well-stocked shop full of honey and honey-based products, where a selection of silk ties and scarves created by the Ben-Zeev queen bee, Malka ("queen" in Hebrew) are also on sale. When Yigal Ben-Zeev celebrated his 60th birthday, Malka created a children's book based on the story of his childhood and love of bees. The book, entitled When Grandpa Yigal Met the Tavor Bees, includes poetic texts and beautiful illustrations, the first of which is a black-and-white photograph of Yigal as a child with his pioneer parents at Shadmot Dvorah, the picture superimposed on a painting of Mount Tabor and surrounding area. A few generations back, Baron Edmond de Rothschild attempted to introduce the production of silk as an industry for the pioneers in his settlements in Palestine. Where the Baron's men failed, the Ben-Zeev family has succeeded, and a journey down the ancient Silk Road in modern times proves a most enjoyable and educational experience.