NORTHRIDGE, California — The sky is impossibly blue and the scenery picturesque on this Los Angeles hilltop. And though there’s a chilling breeze in the air, the Hassidic beekeeper is undeterred.
Humming, Uri Laio kneels down to add some dry leaves to a tin can, which will soon burn into the smoke used to tame his buzzing friends. Moments later, he gracefully slips into a white beekeeping suit, where his bushy beard and kind eyes are barely visible behind the protective veil.
“These honey bees have African genes, which means they’ll swarm to defend themselves if they feel in danger. You have to approach the hives calmly and carefully,” he explains softly as he sprays smoke into several wooden boxes before peeking inside. “I inspect the hives every few weeks to make sure they are ok.”
For the past two years Laio has been tending six hives in the outskirts of Los Angeles to make the purest honey possible for Rosh Hashanah. His hives are gated inside the backyard of the Highland Hall Waldorf School in Northridge, where his bees pollinate the fruits and vegetables growing on the school’s biodynamic farm.
The 29-year-old California native uses the reinvigorated ancient practices of “backwards beekeeping,” a treatment-free method relying on observations rather than pesticides or chemicals. Whereas most commercial beekeepers build plastic structures for their bees and provide them with sugar, corn syrup, pesticides and antibiotics, backwards beekeepers take a holistic approach to their craft and don’t provide comb foundation or pharmaceutical treatments.
Laio’s religious life is likewise a return to a more ancient practice: He grew up in Long Beach as Reform Jew, but after studying abroad in Israel adopted the Hassidic observance found in the Lubavitch movement.
He sees much overlap between Hassidic philosophy and the roles of bees in the world, and as a Jewish beekeeper his spiritual and intellectual beliefs mirror his treatment of his bees. He believes “the world was designed in a way that things should live with little human intervention.” Therefore, Laio allows his bees to do all of their “bee” work of making honey.
The result: the highest-quality honey on the market.
“The bees develop an incredibly strong immune system by not exposing them to any pesticides or antibiotics, and then they can fight off anything in the hive I’d need to kill,” Laio says. “Commercialized bees have a weaker immune system because their keepers move them around so much and feed them artificial food. I give my bees so much attention — they only eat nectar and pollen they collect — so their immune systems are amazing, which means their honey is in its purest form.
“Even if commercialized honey says it’s pure and organic, the stuff they are feeding the bees isn’t, necessarily,” says Laio.
Laio recalls always being fascinated with bees as a kid. Rather than cowering in fear of being stung, he would spend hours in the field, cupping bees in his hands while daydreaming of having hives of his own. He describes gaining a whole new appreciation for God and creations after watching bees build honeycombs and collect nectar.
After a farming apprenticeship in 2008 with Adamah, a program that aims to “cultivate the soil and soul,” Laio said his “bee fever” ignited, and he began in 2011 by simply placing a dollop of honey inside a wooden box. Two years later, he’s caring for over 150,000 bees in six different hives. Each hive produces some 50 pounds of honey on a good year, and Laio sells his honey in mason jars on his blog for $16 a pound.
“Because this honey is in its purest form, I like to call it medicinal quality,” Laio says. “It heals wounds faster than Neosporin, and it’s antifungal, and good for burns. Commercialized honey is pasteurized, but I leave the good bacteria in so it’s great for healing.”
California locals also know him as a go-to for rescuing bees. If neighbors find hives in nearby chimneys or trees, they’ll call Laio first to identify if they are honeybees and see if he can add them to his collection.
Laio believes his methods of beekeeping will help boost the endangered bee population: Since 2006, nearly one third of honeybees have vanished in what is called Colony Collapse Disorder, which researchers believe is a result of the use of pesticides as well as industrial methods of beekeeping.
Laio hopes his traditional methods of beekeeping will not only create the purest of honey, but might contribute to saving a dying species.
‘The Talmud describes the taste of honey to be one-sixtieth of manna’
For Laio, beekeeping is a spiritual hobby: he earns his living through his food pickling business, Brassica and Brine.
“The Talmud describes the taste of honey to be one-sixtieth of manna, and there are Kabbalistic beliefs to the chain-like order that goes on inside the hives,” he says. “In Hassidic thought, we try to bring down the light and energy of God into the tangible, physical world. From seeing the sun as an energy source, to the atmosphere in the hive, it’s inspiring to see bees work hard to create their honey.”
But after seeing all the effort that goes into honey, how could one partake of all that hard work?
“There’s also a belief in creating physical things in this world in order to elevate them,” he adds. “Eating this honey on Rosh Hashanah is the most positive way to use the bees’ works.”