LOS ANGELES (JTA) — 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 Holidays 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.
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 Morristown, N.J.
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.
“It’s dangerous. I’ve been stung a lot. It’s part of the learning,” Laio says. “The first summer I thought I was going into anaphylactic shock,” he adds, advising me to stay out of the bees’ flight path to the hive’s entrance.
Drawing on his education, Laio puts a dab of honey on his finger and holds it out. Soon a bee lands and begins to feed.
“Have you ever been stung?” he asks.
“A couple of times,” I answer, as Laio uses 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 pries off the hive’s wooden lid.
Half expecting to see an angry swarm of bees come flying out like in a horror flick, I step back.
“They seem calm,” says Laio, 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 — estimated by Laio to be 50,000 — to efficiently build the waxy cells of honeycomb into vertical frames.
As he inspects the frames, each still holding sedated bees, he finds 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 that has been decimating hives increasingly over the last 10 years.
Pesticides contribute to the disorder as well as genetically modified plants, he says.
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 he relies on observation and natural practices and forgoes pesticides or chemicals in his beekeeping.
The resulting wildflower honey — Laio hands 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 claims. “In Europe there are bandages impregnated with honey.”
He says it takes a certain type of character to be a beekeeper.
“You need to have patience. Be determined. Learn your limitations. Be calm in stressful situations,” he says.
“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 the Sabbath, Laio likes to sip on a mint iced tea sweetened with his honey — his only sweetener, he says.
“In the Talmud, honey is considered to be one-sixtieth of manna,” says Laio, referring to the “bread” that fell from the sky for 40 years while the Israelites wandered 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.”
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at [email protected].)