Farmers need honeybees to pollinate their crops and will pay for their services.

On Rosh Hashanah, when we wish each other a sweet new year, it seems natural that we associate that wish with honey. Honey, the sweetener mentioned in the Bible (Hebrew devash), is even sweeter than table sugar. 

Veteran beekeeper Joel Letvin of Bloomfield Hills points out that most often when the Bible mentions honey, it means the thick juice of dates or figs (which your grocery store might call dibs, the Arabic equivalent of devash). Bee honey does unequivocally appear in Samson’s riddle (Judges 14:18ff).

The Talmudic rabbis knew that bee honey was kosher and only had to explain why. Their answer, that the bees “bring it into their bodies and do not excrete it from their bodies” (Bekhorot 7b), apparently means that however much chemical change the bees introduce in processing the honey does not reach the level of making honey “the product of a forbidden creature.” 

The bees process the nectar they gather from the flowers. The nectar has such a low concentration of sugars that it would hardly taste sweet at all. Letvin describes how the bees gather one drop of nectar at a time and then evaporate away the extra water. They also add enzymes to effect the transformation. “I called my business the Liquid Sunshine Honey Company because that, in effect, describes honey. Plants turn sunshine into flower nectar; bees collect that nectar and turn it into honey.”

Farmers need honeybees to pollinate their crops and will pay for their services. Honey is almost a byproduct of the main business.

Letvin did beekeeping in California until he moved back to Michigan in 1978. In California, where it does not rain for more than half the year, beekeepers must follow the irrigation schedule, following the pollination schedule for agricultural crops — so beekeepers keep moving their hives. They are on the road all the time. 

Letvin moved back to Michigan along with his wife and purchased a beekeeping business from a widow who was retiring. Her operation involved at least 250 hives. She won awards for the quality of her work, and she taught him a great deal. In Michigan, different plants flower in succession all spring, summer and fall, so a beehive can stay put. 

In late spring or early fall, beekeepers open the hives and check if their bees have enough for the coming winter. According to Letvin, a healthy hive has between 20,000-50,000 thousand bees. The hive consumes about 300 pounds of honey each year. The beekeeper can collect the excess honey, sometimes as much as 100 pounds per hive. 

Letvin continues to raise bees, but now just as a hobby. When his hives produce well, in a good year (like this promises to be), he has honey to give to a long list of friends and to Yad Ezra. 

If there is even more honey, he sends it to a fruit stand that can sell as much honey as his bees can produce. 

A Beekeeper’s Advice for Buying Honey 

Bee honey, famously, has an infinite shelf life. Honey buried with the Pharaohs, unearthed by archeologists in the 20th century, remained edible. However, it does crystalize. As a supersaturated solution, it tends to form crystals of sugar. You can easily restore it to its liquid state by heating it; however, to save you the inconvenience, large-scale commercial honey producers process the honey until it will not crystalize. That processing removes much of the flavor and perhaps much of medical benefits of pure honey. People who want real honey buy directly from the beekeeper or from small-scale producers, who carefully limit how much they heat and process the raw honey. 

A Win-Win Situation at Yad Ezra

Since 1990, Yad Ezra has been providing supplemental kosher food and other services to those in need in the Jewish community. More than five years ago, as part of that mission, Yad Ezra started Giving Gardens, raising fresh food for its clients.

Josh Gordon, manager of Giving Gardens, loves to have bees. “Bees are wonderful pollinators. We see increased yield from our garden because we have resident honeybees.” 

But when Gordon became Giving Gardens manager, he reluctantly recognized that the staff could not continue the hives. Beekeeping requires expertise and more work than the organization could spare. 

Giving Garden at Yad Ezra
Giving Garden at Yad Ezra

Meanwhile, a neighbor, Thomas Demeter, had his own problem. Demeter’s wife, knowing about his long-deferred dream of someday becoming a beekeeper, bought him a present of a course with SEMBA, the Southeast Michigan Beekeeping Association. SEMBA offers a nucleus colony at the conclusion of the course, and instead of waiting until next season, he accepted a colony for his own first hive.

But Demeter had no place to put his hive. 

So he asked Gordon if he could possibly put his hive in the garden operated by Yad Ezra. Gordon eagerly agreed. It amounts to a win-win situation. Demeter has an ideal location for his new hobby, and the garden benefits from the work of thousands of busy little pollinators.

Gordon extolls the educational effect of bees at Giving Gardens: “People love to see bees. People who fear bees overcome their fear by seeing bees at work and learning about what bees do for us.” 

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