Honey on Rosh Hashana

*A version of this article of mine appeared in the 2011 High Holidays issue of SoulWise Magazine. I’m republishing it here because it hasn’t appeared on chassidicbeekeeper.com yet, which is where is really should be.

On Rosh Hashanah we eat many symbolic foods. The most salient is honey—we eat honey cake, we dip challah in honey, and we dip apples in honey with the request, “May it be Your will to renew a good and sweet year for us.”

The custom of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah comes from the Talmud: “Abaye said ‘[A]t the beginning of each year, you should accustom yourself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates…’,” each of which symbolizes something good for the coming year.

But why honey? Why not cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or agave syrup? Firstly, because those sweeteners were unavailable or hadn’t been invented yet when the custom came about. On a wellness level, honey has antioxidant and antibiotic properties which the others lack. As long as we’re asking Hashem for health and wellness, we might as well do our part.

On a deeper level, the Talmud teaches that honey is 1/60th of the mann which sustained our ancestors in the midbar. This comparison is no accident—it is to remind us on Rosh Hashanah that, like the mann, all of our material “sweetness” comes from G-d.

Even more than it is a symbol, honey is truly a special gift from G-d that many take for granted.

Bees make honey by fermenting flower nectar. On average, bees collect nectar from 10 million flowers to produce a little over four cups of honey. To visit those millions of flowers takes 10,000 hours of combined flight, or over 37,000 miles of travel. And bees don’t just make honey. They also make propolis, royal jelly, and beeswax. Just over two pounds of beeswax represents the energy from over 15 pounds of honey.

The elegant alchemy achieved through this chain of events is baffling, mirroring the mystical concept of seder hishtolshelus by which our reality exists.

Plants catch the sun’s light (beaming from about 93 million miles away) and convert that energy into nectar. The bees collect that nectar on the brightest days of the year and carry it into the dark depths of their hives where part of it is converted into beeswax. That wax is then harvested by the beekeeper and made into candles, which are then used to illuminate the darkest of our nights (there is a minhag to use a beeswax candle to light the Chanukah menorah).

Despite their historical role, the bees are dying. In the last ten years, up to 80 percent of commercial beehives in affected areas have been lost to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Factors contributing to CCD include exposure to pesticides, mites, and pollution. Almost 90% of wild honeybees have been lost since 1990 due to urban sprawl and destruction of natural honeybee habitat.

Bees do not only provide honey. They also pollinate over two-thirds of our crops which need pollination, including apples, tomatoes, almonds, and cucumbers. If we don’t change the destiny of the honeybee soon, we’re going to lose more than just honey.

As we dip our apples into honey and pray for a sweet year, let’s be aware that each of us CAN make a difference to ensure that there will be honeybees (and honey, and fruits and vegetables) for future generations. Here are a few simple tips:

*Plant bee-friendly plants in your yard
*Don’t use chemicals and pesticides around your home
*If a colony of bees moves onto your property, call a bee rescue hotline rather than an exterminator
*Buy local, raw honey
*Buy local, organic produce
*And you can even become an organic beekeeper yourself!

Bee Rescue

I rescued a colony of bees in July with my apprentice Megan and haven’t posted pics yet.

These sweet little bees were living in a water meter box on a grass strip in between a street and sidewalk. It is a dangerous place for a hive because it is a common place for children to play and for unwitting people to park their cars and then step out basically directly onto a bee hive. So it needed to be removed.

The removal went very well. As you can see we removed all of the comb onto frames which went into a hive box. There were almost ten full frames of brood comb.

I relocated the box to the bee yard and left them alone for a few weeks. Hive removal is a traumatic experience for a colony.

I peeked in the hive last week to check on the situation. They have all stages of brood and are gathering food and growing! Which means they have a healthy laying queen and all is well in the kingdom of the bees, BH.

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Honey Harvest for Rosh Hashana

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I was worried there wouldn’t be much honey to harvest right now because it’s been a particularly dry summer, but BH there is more than I expected. Today I opened one of four of my mature hives and, well, I was very pleased by what I found.

I wrote a little poem for the bees: Thank you sweet little selfless hardworking bees for your dedication this summer. And thank you for your patience with my sometimes clumsy human hands and plans.

So looks like there will be some honey available for sale before Rosh Hashana. I will post updates.

All in a day’s work

Today I went to remove a hive from Mechelle’s property in Long Beach. They were ensconced in an electrical box in her backyard.

She said bees had been living in this box off and on for at least a year and had cast off multiple swarms. As it happened, there was also a small swarm in her backyard today on a stalk of bamboo. It was not clear whether the swarm was from the hive or not, but it seemed safe to assume that it was.

Inside the electrical box there was lots of well formed comb, but the thing which caught my eye was the large number of queen cells. That was evidence that this hive likes to raise new queens and send out swarms.

There was plenty of brood but what seemed strange was that all the brood seemed to be at the same stage. Usually a hive will have young from the egg stage through the newly-emerging-as-adult stage, but this hive seemed to only have the newly-emerging-as-adult brood.

My guess is that it’s because the old queen swarmed and the new queen didn’t start laying yet, so there is a break in the brood cycle. The only problem is, if for some reason the new queen died during the cut-out rescue, that makes the hive’s ability to survive almost zero.

Time will tell.

Death and Life

There has been a lot of bee activity over the last two days. My next door neighbors got a swarm in their chimney yesterday. They immediately lit a fire in their fireplace and then called an exterminator. Today those bees are all dead.

Since it is high swarm season, I know there will be many more swarms over the next few weeks so I put out a few “swarm traps” today. A swarm trap is any kind of box, wood or cardboard or other material with, at minimum, some wax inside, and perhaps also some queen pheromone, lemongrass (whose smell approximates queen pheromone), or honey.

Within a few hours one of the traps had a lot of bee activity. From the outside it looks like a swarm moved in, but it’s also possible that, given its proximity to the chimney that got burned and poisoned yesterday and today, that these are survivor bees from that colony.

I’ll probably let it sit a few days and then see what’s going on.

But either way, it was a relieving contrast to the death and destruction of my neighbors.

Many people are surprised to hear that, according to official reports, almost all wild honeybees are wiped out in the United States. I tell them it’s mainly because of habitat loss, and this was a fine example. Here was one survivor colony of bees that just got wiped out because they chose the wrong spot to rest. How many times a year does that happen? How many colonies are destroyed because people are scared of them, unjustly so?

**UPDATE**
The next day I checked the trap and a swarm didn’t move in. The bees must have been scouts, so I anticipate a swarm will move in within a week or two iyH.