Finding a memorable Rosh Hashanah gift to give friends is rarely an issue for David and Judy Roth, a Jewish couple from London. They simply giftwrap one of the jars of honey that they extract regularly from the beehive in their backyard.
That product, which is traditionally eaten with apples on the Jewish new year, and the candles the Roths produce from beeswax, are a big part of the reason for the couple’s decision three years ago to join two other Jewish couples and invest time and money in apiculture, with the risks it entails.
Gradually, though, the honey took a backseat to the joys and spiritual insights that the new hobby afforded, David Roth, 61, said.
“I didn’t expect that I would think this way, but getting the honey is a nice additional benefit. Frankly, though, it’s not the main thing,” said Roth, a marketing executive who has three children with his wife Judy, a nurse.
Roth is fascinated by the intricacies and multiple unsolved scientific mysteries concerning bee behavior, he said. But beekeeping also has a strong spiritual element for him.
“I’m a religious person, I don’t believe that the world was created by accident. And when you see the wonders of how bees work and operate, it makes you feel good about God,” Roth, who uses the beeswax candles for Havdalah, the prayer ritual performed at the end of Shabbat, told The Times of Israel earlier this week.
London Jews have been flirting with beekeeping since at least 2011, when a local Jewish community center launched what it called the “Bee The Change” initiative, through which the center helped train two urban beekeepers from the community.
The Roths and their fellow Jewish beekeepers, however, took up the hobby during the COVID-19 lockdown, receiving guidance from a non-Jewish community center that launched the activity as part of its lockdown coping program. The Roths, who go to an Orthodox synagogue in the northwest neighborhood of Pinner in London, soon discovered that beekeeping resonated with their religious side, as well.
As a religion with deep agricultural roots, Judaism has a well-documented approach to apiculture, encompassing both the keeper’s responsibility toward their bees and detailing the legal complications that can occur when a swarm leaves its hive.
Beekeeping is one of the few situations when children can serve as witnesses according to Halachah, Jewish Orthodox law. It stipulates that if a child testifies that a swarm originated in an owner’s beehive, then the swarm can be returned to the owner based on the testimony.
Another rare exception, which attests to the significance that beekeeping had before humans learned to mass produce sugar: Bee owners may trespass – a big deal in Judaism – to retrieve escaped or errant bee swarms. They may even cut down branches of other people’s trees — another big deal — but are obliged to compensate the land’s owner for any damage they cause, according to what Rabbi Avraham Laber, himself a beekeeper and co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Southern Rensselaer County in New York, told Chabad.org in 2019.
One nonprofit in the United States, Bees for Peace, encourages as part of its mission statement rabbis, imams and priests to launch beekeeping projects in their communities for the spiritual aspect of the experience.
It doesn’t take clergy to appreciate how bee societies offer takeaways for life as a human.
“It’s an amazing reflective experience and it’s where humanity and nature sort of combine,” Roth said. Observing bees gave him “an immense appreciation for the marvel of God or nature, depending on your perspective,” Roth added.
An average colony has 50,000 individuals, he noted, and “all have a role and a purpose to them. They look after each other. None of the bees go to bee school. They instinctively learned it. It’s a micro-society, which doesn’t suffer from social media, by the way.”
Beekeeping isn’t for everybody: It can be done on a rooftop but ideally, it happens in a yard large enough for the hive to be kept away from windows. David and Judy Roth planted bee-friendly plants and have stopped trimming a portion of their garden to let it grow wild for the bees.
Extracting the honey requires special equipment and skill. The bees need to be fed throughout winter – their sustenance, in lieu of honey, is sugar water – and cared for to survive.
Then there’s the matter of getting stung, an unavoidable and potentially dangerous eventuality for anybody handling bees over any significant period of time.
“I’ve been stung more times than I’d like to remember,” Roth said when asked about it. “But most times I’ve understood why I got stung and haven’t repeated the same mistake twice. It’s for different reasons.”
Although stinging leads to an individual bee’s death, they are “phenomenally protective, and if they think that somebody’s there to harm the hive, they don’t waste time in finding you,” Roth said.
There are aspects to the bee’s life cycle that appeared cruel to Roth when he first became exposed to them in the course of beekeeping, he added.
“They want to conserve as much of the honey as possible so that the bees can survive the winter. So the male bees, the drones, they’ll be excluded by the rest of the colony and starve and die off. So the colony pretty much halves in size,” Roth said.
Some aspects of bee behavior have baffled scientists for centuries. It was only in the 1970s that the Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch detailed how honey bees communicate in the utter darkness of the hive with their waggle dance, which gives bees coordinates to flowers and is so intricate that it accounts for Earth’s rotation. Von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this.
Other behaviors remain mysterious, including the mechanism through which new queens are reared in a beehive that usually tolerates only one queen, and what makes their followers leave their hive to form a new one.
Another is washboarding, the term for when honey bees use their mandibles and front legs to scrape the surface of the hive as a group in a rhythmical fashion.
A more relatable aspect of bee behavior is their aversion to rain.
“They don’t like it. It’s very funny because you see them come out of their hive and they look around, they hear it’s raining, and they go straight back in. Just like other Londoners,” Roth said, speaking as he was taking out challah for Rosh Hashanah from his oven in his home in Pinner.
But this can have serious implications for bees’ survivability, because on rainy summers, as this past one has been in England, the bees collect little honey, which can result in mass death in winter, particularly for wild swarms.
In recent years, bee mortality has skyrocketed due to what scientists believe is a combination of parasites, pesticides, starvation and climate change.
America’s honeybee hives recorded last year the second highest death rate on record, with beekeepers losing nearly half of their managed colonies, according to an annual bee survey. The problem is global, and in the United Kingdom, 33% of bee populations have disappeared in the last decade, with 13 out of 35 native bee species dying off since 1900.
This phenomenon’s implications by far exceed the honey production industry, as bees are major pollinators for multiple crops, which also affect the meat and dairy industries.
Technology is being used to address the problem, and Israeli high-tech is at the forefront of the fight to bring down bee mortality. The Israeli company BeeWise, for instance, invented a robot that uses artificial intelligence to monitor problems in individual hives which the firm says brings down mortality rates from 40% to 8%.
But home beekeepers can also make a difference, said Roth, who has worked in his professional capacity with multiple large firms to improve their environmental performance.
“From a beekeeping perspective, you can’t change the world, but you can make a difference. And every little bit helps,” Roth said.
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