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HONEY, I love you.

Being a Beekeeper in Israel.

September 29, 2019

Bees are amazing creatures, and they don’t get enough credit for their hard jobs. Most of us, and I have to confess that myself included, are afraid of them. But there is so much more to them than just honey. They are smart, hard-working, and currently in danger of extinction. They produce this beautiful golden sweet liquid that we love so much, and they are responsible for the pollination of almost a 3rd of all the crops that provide our diet. And that is precisely why their danger of extinction becomes our problem. Without bees in the world, our kitchen table will be almost empty, and we will face the threat of extinction.

The modern agricultural system is making the bees lives harder. The monocultural system is harming the bees’ diet; there is not enough plant versatility, and the bees don’t get all the needed nutrients. The heavy use of pesticides in the fields is killing the bees with poisoned chemicals. And we haven’t started talking about diseases that can attack the colonies. No wonder the bees are disappearing. A hazardous phenomenon that is snowballing is called Colony Disorder. The bees leave the beehives like on every other day but don’t come back. The scientists are not able yet to explain the phenomenon entirely, but all the above for sure contribute to the problem.

When we open a beehive, we will see colorful pollen, shiny honey and in the middle white eggs – the new bees to be. The queen is easily spotted as she is longer and bigger in size than her fellow bees.

In the first two weeks of their lives, the bees don’t leave the beehive at all. They have too much work at home to handle first. They care for the bees that didn’t erupt yet, move honey within the beehive and feed the queen. Their jobs become more and more complicated as they grow up and start to have guard watch duties and honey arrangements. After the first two weeks of their lives, they begin to leave the beehive doing three main things – bringing honey, bringing water and bringing proteins in the form of pollen. All three essential to the development of the hive. Water is used to cool the beehives. In the hot Israeli summer, the farmers put water tanks with plants inside them close to the colonies to provide the bees with a closeby, rich water source. The plants are their nutrition. From the flower’s nectar, they create honey, but from the flower’s pollen, they get all the required amino acids to grow; here, the variety maters to maintain a rich diet.

In Israel, most of the honey belongs to the general category called Wildflowers. It is very healthy and rich in polyphenols and antioxidants.

The beehive is a working organism. It depends on the individual bees but works as one unit. By themselves, the bees will not be able to survive; they are social creatures. The beehive works as a very advanced democracy. Although the queen decides everything, if she will not do her job correctly, she will be removed. They are very good at their jobs. They are using beeswax as a building material to build the honeycomb. In their natural environment, the bees were building the combs inside trees, creating a round shape. The frames are mostly for the beekeepers, to make it easier to retrieve honey. The black propolis is used as a glue (and also the one we get in our coughing candies). The royal jelly is the protein made from pollen and given as food to the queen, for her to develop queen properties. All bees are born equal; the treatment they get in the first 2-3 days of their lives is the one to determine if they become a queen or a working female bee.

The beehives we were visiting were one month old at the time, on 21/06 they received a queen and that’s when the counting starts. Young hives are always in danger. There are multiple reasons to lose beehives – diseases, queen problems, wrong conditions.

Except for making honey, the bees have an essential job of pollination in the agricultural business. 90% of the avocado plantations, the watermelons, and the strawberries, they all depend on pollination. Of course, they are not the only ones who can get the job done, but they are the most significant force in the field.

It is not coincidental that we are afraid of bees. Bees allergy is pretty standard and dangerous. What is very interesting to know is that after the first bite you will not see if you are allergic or not. Only after the second one, and then, if you are, you will need urgent medical treatment. Avihai Simner, from moshav Ein Vered, and the owner of ‘Hadvash Shel Saba’ (Grandpas’ Honey), can tell this first hand as his first bee memory is from his kindergarten where he left a sweet drink open and got stunned by a bee on his tongue. At his second sting, he found out that he is allergic to bees. An allergy that improved with the years and didn’t prevent him from continuing his father’s beekeeping business. His father left a successful career in IBM to become a beekeeper. He arrived at the beekeeping business, leaving a career as a pilot. Today they own around 2000 beehives, spread all around the country – a medium-sized business in Israeli measures. There are 130 large scale beekeepers in Israel united by a honey counsel and the beekeepers union. The winds of change are blowing in the Israeli honey field as we speak.

As a commercial pilot, your everyday job is very structured. As a beekeeper, your job is very challenging as in every beehive, you will have an entirely new set of decisions, and there are a lot of parameters that can go wrong.

Israel as a country is not very honey oriented, it is not in our d.n.a. to consume honey with our meal (except for the Jewish new years holiday, Rosh Hashana when the honey sales rocket). Many prefer to use the local date honey for everyday consumption. An average person in Israel will consume during a year 0.5 kg of honey (just for the comparison in the united states it will be around 1.7 pounds which are 0.77 kg).

The sound of the bees is exciting and can be interpreted, helping us to understand them.

Beekeeping in Israel is a very seasonal business as most of the flowers blossom in the spring. Each tree blossom for around two weeks and as a beekeeper you need to use it in your advance, mooving your beehives properly. In the summer, when most of the plants around the country dry, the beekeepers move their hives to the Golan Heights where the Jujube trees blossom, sometime around July. It has a very particular smell but even a more exciting history. In the Cristian belief, the tiara on the head of Jesus Christ was made of Jujube leaves. It is also very healthy as it has more antioxidants than other honey varieties. And still, the reason for the single-origin honey is mostly for marketing purposes. For most of the customers, it doesn’t matter. But with the single-origin coffee wave and the foodie movement, the single-origin honey is getting a lot of attention. Statistics makes the definition. If most of the flowers in the area are Jujube or Mustered, that will be single-origin honey. If it is hard to define, it will be part of the general category of wildflowers honey. For the bees, it doesn’t matter, but for us, the honey will defer in smell, color, and taste.

A new way of beekeeping is dressing the beehives in unique clothing made of Lycra to prevent honey stealing from the holes in the wood. By building a maze for the bees inside the colony, a one-way barrier is created, and the honey can be easily retrieved as the upper levels of the hives are left with no bees.

To put your beehives in a field, you need an exclusive license. The honey counsel gives this license for a particular place, season, and amount of hives. Those registrations are essential for the beekeepers as they keep order in the production preventing violence and disorder. As Israel is a small country, most of the good places are already taken, and the other beekeepers are left to struggle.

The Beekeepers learn to know their bees, treating them with calmness and respect. When opening beehives, the beekeepers spread smoke that makes the bees calmer and protect themselves with unique clothing. Experienced beekeepers will be brave enough to do it even without it. Knowing their bees, they can feel their mood and reassure they don’t get stung. Remember – bees are susceptible to smells, and harsh smells will annoy them. It is essential to understand that the bee will not sting if it doesn’t have too as she will die as a result of it.

Hony combs weight around 3 kg.

When the honey is ready, the bees are being moved to a new beehive, to start and create a new colony, and the honey is extracted. The honeycombs are being put in a machine that opens them, letting the honey to drill out to a container. The centrifuge will turn for 15-30 minutes allowing all the honey to come out. From the tank, the honey will be pumped into the barrels. The best will be to look for sealed beehives. At the moment that the honey reaches the perfect moist condition, the bees seal the hives. It happens at around 20%, and we get ideal honey to work with. The foam firming on top of the honey barrel is the beeswax.

At the end of the process, the honey is preserved in barrels. Each bee is producing during her life around half a spoon of honey (3.5 grams). To make the 280kg honey barrels full, almost 90 thousand bees need to work all their lives.

Naturally honey will crystallize because of the remains of pollen in it. It will take different time depending on the honey type. Whereas Sabra honey will take two weeks to crystalize, for Mustered honey it will take almost two months. The temperature the honey is kept at will also affect the process; in a colder climate, it will crystallize faster. There is a way to prevent the crystallization by warming up the honey or filtering it with pressure.

Fresh Thorn honey honeycomb.

Today if you want to buy Avihai’s honey, their marketing is mainly through their collaboration with ‘Anshey Hazait.’ Together they made ‘Anshey Hadvash’ (the honey people), and that’s how you can find Avihai’s honey on the market. Another way is through the Shukbuk website, where you can buy honey and other local products.

Got interested in bees? Well, then I did my job right. I will recommend watching the excellent film – More than Honey; I can assure you that after watching it, you will fall in love with those smart creatures even more. If you have any thoughts about honey, write them in the comments, and meanwhile, have a sweet day.

A penny for your thought