Honey production in Israel — a sweet undertaking

BY BATSHEVA POMERANTZ, IPS

Honey is a popular ingredient in Rosh Hashana dishes, and the greeting Shana tova u’metuka (“A good and sweet year”) is on everyone’s lips. At the festive Rosh Hashana meal, a piece of challah trickled with honey is followed by a slice of apple dipped in honey, and honey cake tops off the feast as a classic dessert.

Due to increased local demand for honey in recent years, the proverbial Land of Milk and Honey (whose 90,000 beehives produce a whopping 3,600 tons of honey annually) has found itself in the unlikely situation of having to import honey to maintain its honey industry.

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To solve the problem, the Jewish National Fund earmarked forests for beehives and agreed to provide the Honey Council with some 100,000 nectar-producing saplings and plants each year. When this didn’t suffice, the Jewish National Fund, together with the country’s 500 apiarists, took further action and in early 2006 implemented the planting of some 200,000 additional trees as a source of nectar for bees. Beekeepers can now travel with their beehives to one of 6,300 pasture points situated around the country.

The raising of honey bees first took off in the Land of Israel in the late 19th century, although in the biblical era dates were made into honey, and many believe the notion of a “land flowing with milk and honey” actually referred to date honey.

Fifth-generation apiarist Malka Ben Zeev of the Dvorat HaTavor Land of Silk and Honey Center in the Lower Galilee can trace her profession back to her Hungarian ancestors. Her agronomist husband, Yigal, learned the art of rearing silkworms in Iran in the late 1960s while an emissary of the Israeli government. The two joined forces, and in 1970, the newlyweds established the only silkworm breeding farm in Israel and began developing a successful honey production business at Moshav Shadmot Dvora, a stone’s throw from Mount Tabor and the second century BCE Silk Road.

Dvorat HaTavor, which is recognized by the Israel government as an agro-tourism attraction, enjoys visits from students of all ages, retirees and groups of young people from the Diaspora. A program in Arabic is geared to the Arab residents of the Galilee.

The Visitors Center employs Galilee residents — often recently discharged IDF soldiers — as guides to explain about removal of the combs and extraction of the honey from the hives, each of which produces approximately 45 kilograms of honey a year.

“We place our hives in Galilee fields where there are natural wild flowers,” Malka explains, “and avoid orange or avocado orchards that are sprayed with pesticides. The bees graze on white forest flowers according to the season. In the summer our honey is produced from thistles.”

Israel has two to three blossom seasons when the bees suck the nectar from more than one hundred types of plants, starting off the fascinating production process. The plants are divided into cultivated plants, like citrus (from which most of the honey is produced in Israel), and wild flowers. The flowers from which the nectar is collected affect the flavor and color of the honey. Plants include avocado, marjoram, eucalyptus, thorns, citrus, three-lobed sage, thyme and clover.

Some types of honey, like those made from avocado and eucalyptus nectar, are suitable for roasting meat, while others, from the nectar of wild flowers, are suited for light repasts consisting of leafy salads, fruit and yogurt. Honey produced from citrus is suitable for baking cakes and dishes with a dough base.

Honey was used for thousands of years for health purposes and its long shelf life has been proven by the discovery of jars of still edible honey entombed with Egyptian mummies. According to the Honey Council, honey is a sterile natural food and can be effective in warding off winter illnesses, boosting appetite and energy. As a sweetener, honey is 25 percent less caloric than sugar, with 25-30 calories per teaspoonful.

Healthy byproducts of the beehive include propolis, “the natural antibiotic,” which protects the beehive from illness. It is scraped from each hive in small quantities and used in anti-fungus creams, creams to soothe the skin and sprays for irritated throats. Another healthful byproduct is pollen, which is used to nourish the bees, and which is rich in vitamins, including vitamin B-12. “Propolis and pollen are expensive because of the intensive work needed to extract them from the beehive,” notes Malka.

Finally, let us not forget the hardworking bees, who must visit more than 4.5 million flowers and travel over 140,000 kilometers to produce a single kilogram of honey so that we may enjoy this traditional treat on Rosh Hashana.

Note: In 2004, the Apiarists Organization in Israel changed the name of its profession. Until then an apiarist was known as a kavran, which, although spelled differently, sounded identical to the word for undertaker in Hebrew. An Israeli apiarist is now called a dvorai, from dvora (bee).