LOS ANGELES – Here’s the buzz about Rosh Hashanah: Beyond a congregation or family, it takes a hive to have a holiday.
You may have your tickets, new dress or suit and High Holy Days app, but without the honey in which to dip a slice of apple, where would you be?
We wish each other “Shanah tovah umetuka,” “Have a good and sweet new year.” To further sweeten the calendar change we eat honey cake – even Martha Stewart has a recipe – and teiglach, little twisted balls of dough boiled in honey syrup.
Little do we realize that to fill a jar or squeeze bottle containing two cups of the sticky, golden stuff, a hive of honeybees must visit 5 million flowers.
|Edmon J. Rodman dons beekeeper’s gear to get a honey of a High Holy Days story. Edmon J. Rodman|
For most of us, the honey seems a somehow natural byproduct of the cute, bear-shaped squeeze bottle that we pick up at the store. But for beekeeper Uri Laio, honey is like a gift from heaven. His motto, “Honey and Beeswax with Intention,” is on his website, chassidicbeekeeper.com.
“Everyone takes honey for granted; I did,” says Laio, who is affiliated with Chabad and attended yeshiva in Jerusalem and in Morristown.
Not wanting to take my holiday honey for granted anymore, I suited up along with him in a white cotton bee suit and hood to visit the hives he keeps near the large garden area of the Highland Hall Waldorf School, an 11-acre campus in Northridge, Calif.
After three years of beekeeping – he also leads sessions with the school’s students – Laio has learned to appreciate that “thousands of bees gave their entire lives to fill a jar of honey.” In the summer, that’s five to six weeks for an adult worker; in the winter it’s longer.
It’s been an appreciation gained through experience. The throbbing kind of experience.
“It’s dangerous,” Laio said. “I’ve been stung a lot. It’s part of the learning.
“The first summer I thought I was going into anaphylactic shock,” he added, advising me to stay out of the bees’ flight path to the hive’s entrance.
Drawing on his education, Laio put a dab of honey on his finger and held it out. Soon a bee landed and began to feed.
“Have you ever been stung?” he asked.
“A couple of times,” I answered, as Laio used a hand-held bee smoker to puff in some white smoke to “calm the hive.” After waiting a few minutes for the smoke to take effect, and with me watching wide-eyed, he carefully pried off the hive’s wooden lid.
Half expecting to see an angry swarm of bees come flying out like in a horror flick, I stepped back.
“They seem calm,” Laio said, bending down to listen to the buzz level coming from the hive. “Some days the humming sounds almost like song.”
The rectangular stack of boxes, called a Langstroth Hive, allows the bee colony – Laio estimates it has about 50,000 bees – to build the waxy cells of honeycomb into vertical frames efficiently.
As he inspected the frames, each still holding sedated bees, he found few capped cells of honey. The bees have a way to go if Laio is going to be able to put up a small number of jars for sale, as he did last year for Rosh Hashanah.
According to Laio, hives can be attacked by ants, mites, moths, and a disease called bee colony collapse disorder, which has been decimating hives increasingly over the last 10 years.
Pesticides contribute to the disorder, and so do genetically modified plants, he said.
Underscoring the importance that bees have in our lives beyond the Days of Awe, Laio calculates that “one out of every three bits of food you eat is a result of honeybee pollination.”
Laio practices backwards or treatment-free beekeeping, so called because it relies on observation and natural practices and forgoes pesticides or chemicals in beekeeping.
The resulting wildflower honey – Laio handed me a jar to try – is sweet, flavorful, and thick, tastier than any honey from the store.
“Honey is a superfood. And it heals better than Neosporin,” Laio said. “In Europe there are bandages impregnated with honey.”
He said that it takes a certain type of character to be a beekeeper.
“You need to have patience,” he said. “Be determined. Learn your limitations. Be calm in stressful situations.
“People are fascinated with it. I can’t tell you how many Shabbos table meals have been filled with people asking me about bees.”
On Shabbat, Laio likes to sip on a mint iced tea sweetened with his honey. It is his only sweetener, he says.
“In the Talmud, honey is considered to be one-sixtieth of manna,” Laio said, referring to the food that fell from the sky for the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. “The blessing for manna ended with ‘Min hashamayim,’ ‘from the heavens,’ and not ‘min haaretz,’ ‘from the earth.'”
With the honey-manna connection in mind, especially at the Jewish New Year, Laio finds that “all the sweetness, whatever form it is in, comes straight from God.”
JTA Wire Service