Artisanal honey is the bee’s knees
Rosh Hashanah

Artisanal honey is the bee’s knees

Israeli apiarists sweat to sell the sweet stuff. It’s a labor of love

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Raising queen bees (Courtesy Black Bear Honey/photo credit: Stephen Epstein)
Raising queen bees (Courtesy Black Bear Honey/photo credit: Stephen Epstein)

It’s honey time. This is the week when the average Israeli consumer will buy most of his or her annual allotment of honey — two kilos (4.4 pounds) — and start the year off by dipping Rosh Hashanah slices of apple. Many will purchase mass-market labels, from Yad Mordechai in particular, the southern kibbutz business now controlled by the Strauss Group that has snagged more than 50 percent of the local market with its jars and patented squeeze-bottles of honey.

But with 500 beekeepers in Israel producing 3,000-plus tons of honey annually, there’s an ample selection of artisanal honey available, sold in small farm stores as well as on the shelves of health food markets and specialty shops. For these beekeepers, Rosh Hashanah is honey’s high-season, during which they sell most of their stock of varietal honey made from hives scattered near groves of eucalyptus and citrus, avocado and apples.

It’s good timing for the apiarists, who keep busy during the early summer months gathering and jarring their golden syrup, but are already deep into the bees’ dormant season by September. That doesn’t stop customers from calling Simon’s Bee Farm in Kfar Sirkin, a moshav outside Petah Tikva, to ask whether they’re holding any bee-related activities over the holiday.

“Nope,” says Orna Simon, answering the phone while offering spoon-size samples of Simon’s onion and desert flower honey to customers. “But you can come to the store to see what we have.”

Log cabin shop

The wooden shelves of Simon’s Bees are well-stocked with at least 10 different kinds of honey sharing space with boxed honeycomb, gift-wrapped baskets of specialty honey — including organic honey, marzipan honey and halva honey — for the holidays and honey-related tchotchkes.

Beekeeper Shabtai Simon (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Beekeeper Shabtai Simon (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Among the country’s larger private beekeepers, producing tens of tons of honey from 1,000 hives scattered from north to south, the Simons have been in business for more than 30 years. Beekeeper Shabtai Simon, Orna’s husband and a quiet bear of a man, was born on Kfar Sirkin where they have always kept bees. Simon’s Bees sells nearly all of its output through its store, with just a small portion sold through some Eden Teva Market outlets.

“Honey always keeps, it never spoils,” said Shabtai Simon, a purist who doesn’t pasteurize his honey but instead lets it crystallize and thicken in the jar in what is considered a sign of quality.

Back in the 1970s and into the 1980s, small beekeepers like the Simons had no choice but to sell their honey through the larger food manufacturers, thus earning only a portion of the potential profits. By 2000, however, the Simons decided to put all their effort into building their own business, particularly given the debilitating influence of the second intifada on Orna Simon’s tour guide business. They built a log cabin shop that sits on a plot of land between their home and that of their daughter Yaara, who runs the business with them, and decided to sell nearly all of their honey products themselves, rather than pay stores for shelf space.

“This store isn’t on the way to anything else,” says Shabtai Simon. “You have to make an effort to come here.”

And people do; there was a steady stream of customers on a Sunday morning before the holiday. The Simons have also found that despite the extraordinarily hard physical labor, it makes more sense to do it all themselves. They’ve had a tough time finding Israeli or foreign workers willing to undergo the training necessary to work with bees, and instead rely on their own children — known around the community as mishpahat dvash, the honey family — during the busy collecting season.

Beekeeping is hard and competitive, and while there’s a certain amount of knowledge passed between beekeepers, guys like Shabtai Simon tend to keep to themselves, figuring out which methods work best.

“I know what I make,” said Shabtai Simon, “and it’s a good business. It’s exhausting work, but I still love it.”

Loving the land of milk and honey

Honey and alcoholic cider made from apple nectar (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Honey and alcoholic cider made from apple nectar (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

At Tura Winery, located in Rehalim, a settlement just above Ariel, some 250 kilograms of honey are a byproduct of Erez Ben Saadon’s apple trees on nearby Mount Bracha, from which he also makes a light, alcoholic cider, one of several being developed in Israel.

“Our approach is to make as many products as possible from where we live,” said Ben Saadon, referring to the high hills that draw a heavy cloud of dew each morning, benefitting his trees and bees as well as his grapevines. “We want to produce what our land knows how to give.”

“Beekeeping is very complicated, very scientific,” said Alison Epstein of Black Bear Honey. Her bees live in hives in Rosh Ha’ayin and Kidron, near Gedera, where they pollinate eucalyptus, apricot, peach and orange trees, as well as wildflowers. “There’s the animal husbandry of it all, just so many elements to consider.”

The Epsteins, who made aliya from Toronto nearly seven years ago, live in Rehovot and both work full-time. It was several years ago, when Stephen Epstein was temporarily out of work, that they thought about developing a source of income in which they could rely on themselves, develop a connection to the land, and turn a small profit. Stephen Epstein had assembled beehives at a northern kibbutz when he was younger and Alison found out that her grandfather used to keep beehives.

Working with bees has introduced them to an entirely different side of Israel. It’s a regulated industry that stipulates the permitted number  — they have 50 — and location of  beehives (not within 150 meters of a home, for example). The honey council, they found, is friendly and helpful but strict.

They also, like all apiarists, grapple with the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, a somewhat mysterious syndrome that is responsible for a significant decrease in bee colonies worldwide.

Hives in March, following a rainy winter (Courtesy Black Bear Honey/photo credit: Stephen Epstein)
Hives in March, following a rainy winter (Courtesy Black Bear Honey/photo credit: Stephen Epstein)

“Israel doesn’t encourage urban beekeeping like in London or New York, and while we live in pretty cramped quarters here, some work could be done about that,” commented Alison Epstein. “It’s important that the council works to keep beekeepers educated and careful.”

The Epsteins invest a good deal of time and energy in their boutique apiary, heading to the beehives every Friday and devoting several hours each week to making fresh protein patties for the bees during late summer, when there’s nothing for them to eat because all the honey has been collected. A fairly common solution worldwide, the patties are a pollen subsitute made from soy flour, brewer’s yeast, sugar and oil. Unable to find brewer’s yeast, she’s asked several microbreweries for the slurry left from beer brewing, which she then dries out in the oven and adds to the mixture.

Bees feeding on protein patties (Courtesy Black Bear Honey/photo credit: Stephen Epstein)
Bees feeding on protein patties (Courtesy Black Bear Honey/photo credit: Stephen Epstein)

The Epsteins extract and bottle the honey at a nearby farm in Rehovot, and don’t blend their honey like larger producers because they prefer to keep the flavors pure and unique. They sell through word of mouth, maintaining a waiting list if they sell out of their kilo-size jars, as they have this year.

“It’s not about the money — honey certainly isn’t going to make us rich — but we enjoy it, we enjoy the work,” said Epstein. “We’re doing our little part to let the land flourish.”

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