Is there any more miraculous creature than the honeybee? They have long been an object of fascination for me, since I was a schoolgirl in 4th grade and we had to learn about workers, drones, the queen, combs, hives, and honey. Back in the day, I could stand for hours in front of the 4-H club honeybee exhibit at the annual State Fair, looking for the queen bee (which was always marked with a white dot, for the benefit of the fair-goers), and I’d always line up for free tastes of different types of honey pollinated with buckwheat, blueberry, orange or clover. (I even have a granddaughter who was named after my mother-in-law and mother, whose name Devorah Malka translates from the Hebrew as “Queen Bee,” but I assure you this is only a coincidence.)
From a religious perspective, there is much discussion about honeybees in the Talmud. How can honey be kosher, if it is the product of an insect which is in itself a non-kosher being?
Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman of Ohr Somayach answers this question:
“The Mishna in Tractate Bechorot states:
“That which comes from something which is tameh [non-kosher] is tameh, and that which comes of that which is tahor [kosher] is tahor.” So you are right, Balint — the product of a non-kosher animal is not kosher. So why is bee-honey kosher?
The Talmud in the same Tractate quotes a beraita (a halachic teaching from the time of the Mishna) which says: “Why is bee-honey permitted? Because even though bees bring honey into their bodies, it is not produced by their bodies”. What does this mean? How do bees make honey?
Honeybees use nectar from flowers to make honey. With long, tube-like tongues they suck the nectar out of flowers and they store it in special “honey stomachs”. This honey stomach serves as a nectar backpack in which the honeybees transport the nectar back to the hive.
There, the honeybees pass the nectar on to worker bees. These bees suck the nectar from the honeybee’s special honey stomach, process it and then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it a thick syrup. The honey is then stored until it is eaten. [In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey!]
Therefore, since honey does not come from the body, but rather through the body of the bee, Maimonides codifies bee-honey as being kosher, as does the Shulchan Aruch.
You may wonder: How could one even think that bee-honey is not kosher? The Torah refers to the Land of Israel as “a Land flowing with milk and honey”! Certainly the Torah would not choose a non-kosher product as a means for describing the beauty of the Land of Israel! This may come as a surprise, but the honey mentioned in the verse about “milk and honey” is not bee-honey, rather it is fig-honey. Another excerpt from the Talmud Tractate Berachot interprets the verse, “It is a Land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates, a Land of olives and honey” — as referring to date-honey.”Sources:
- Tractate Bechorot, pages 5b, 7b.
- The Codes of Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Foods 3:3.
- Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 81:8.
- Tractate Megillah, page 6a, Rashi.
- Chumash, Book of Devarim, 8:8.
- Tractate Berachot, page 41b, Rashi.
I thought it might be a nice idea to learn about beekeeping, with the goal of maintaining an apiary (bee hives) on our property in Maine. Not only would they pollinate my apple trees and produce honey, they would provide a wonderful educational experience for my grandchildren when they would come to visit. I checked out as many books as I could find from the library. I even signed up for a beekeeping course in the early Spring. I was sorely disappointed when unfortunately the class was cancelled due to lack of interest.
Then I found out that I could have the best of all worlds without the labor or expense: I could have a Bee Yard. By allowing a beekeeper access to my property, and having him set up and maintain his own hives there, my trees would get pollinated, I would be able to observe bee activity and learn about beekeeping from an expert on an ongoing basis, yet I wouldn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting (each “super,” or tray of honeycomb, can weigh 50 – 60 lbs and must be lifted out of the hive to be harvested; there are 8 to 10 supers per hive). I wouldn’t have to worry about the expense of buying the hive or the equipment (about a $500 minimum investment for 2 hives, plus a smoker, bee suit, honey extractor, etc. etc). I need not be concerned with whether the bees would survive the cold of winter, disease, or attacks from rival invading colonies. I would get at least a few jars of honey in exchange for use of my property. It seemed like a win-win situation.
So I put an ad in Craigslist:
We are offering space for your hives next to our newly planted apple orchard. No pesticides. A seasonal stream is adjacent, and a large pond is 300′ away. Southern exposure. Easy vehicle access, yet away from traffic in pristine area. Located 30 min. from No. Conway. Call 207-928-xxxx.
Within 3 days I received a call from Josh Perry, an elderly man who lives 8 miles up the road, on the New Hampshire side of the border in Chatham. He keeps about 50 hives all around the area, and has been doing so for the past 13 years. His bright red pickup truck’s vanity plate says “BEEMAN.”
“Ayuh,” he began in his strong New Hampshire accent, “I’ve been doing this for the past 13 yee-ahs (years) and I’m still lahning (learning),” he said. His plan was to put 4 hives on our property initially, and if they would do well, to add an additional 2 hives the following yee-ah (I mean, year). Not only would I get a few jars of honey, he would invite me and my grandchildren back to his house in August when, after harvesting the honey, he would use the extractor and process the honey and bottle it.
“Why, the othaday (other day) the bees were positively singing,” he said. Apparently weather affects their disposition. On a nice sunny day, they are happy, and they buzz with happy sounds. On cloudy days, especially before a thunderstorm, “oh, no, they are not happy, not happy at all,” the BeeMan says. “You can actually hear them growling. You’ll see: you’ll get to know their sounds, their voice.”
He told me that as long as I didn’t disturb the hives, I would not get stung, but that I might want to wear a bee suit if I decided to do any weed-whacking in my orchard. “But I will weed-whack the area directly surrounding the hives,” he assured me.
He was planning on encircling the hives with a solar-powered electrified wire fence to defeat bears attempting to disrupt the hive. “You’d be amazed at what bears will do to get to honey,” he said, describing the hundreds of painful stings they were willing to endure on the sensitive areas of their bellies, noses, eyes, paws and ears. “Do you have a problem with my shooting a bear that gets into a hive?” he asked. “I would take care of removal, so no worries there.”
“Isn’t it illegal to shoot a bear outside of hunting season?” I asked. The last thing I wanted was a heavy fine or jail time from my local State Game Warden.
“As long as it’s on your personal property, and you can prove that you made an effort to keep bears out with a fence, then you are considered to be defending your property,” the BeeMan said. (He’s right. I checked with the State Game Warden just to be sure.) “I’ll come again in mid-May when I bring over the hives.”
I see that we will be in for a unique adventure . . .