Rosh Hashanah 5776

Israel’s adopted eucalyptus trees are the bee’s knees

A countrywide plan to help pollination has increased Israel’s honey output, and may be the answer for bee problems in the US

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The bell-shaped blooms of the Lemon Mallee eucalyptus help pollination to flourish. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The bell-shaped blooms of the Lemon Mallee eucalyptus help pollination to flourish. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

KFAR BILU, Rehovot — A bee buzzed around the yellow, bell-shaped flower of the Lemon Mallee eucalyptus, one of dozens of eucalyptus varietals planted in this empty lot sandwiched between a supermarket and Route 40 of the busy Bilu Junction.

Its quiet, gracing presence in this orchard of smooth-barked eucalyptus trees proves that when flowering trees are planted, even on a dilapidated highway divider, they help preserve the local habitat for pollinating bees.

“That’s part of our work now, to enrich the flowering season where possible,” said Yuval Lin, a local beekeeper from Kfar Bilu.

The honeybee didn’t come from one of beekeeper Lin’s Apidae. But Lin, along with Israel’s 449 other beekeepers and the nation’s tree-keepers from Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), has been working to ensure a longer flowering season. He has been scouting out sites for the planting of some 80 varieties of eucalyptus trees around Israel, at a rate of 100,000 each year.

Yuval Lin has been a beekeeper since his teens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Yuval Lin has been a beekeeper since his teens (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Israel’s bees haven’t suffered from Colony Collapse Disorder, the ailment that has decimated the global bee population and threatens commercial fruit and vegetable crops in Europe and the US. Bees, along with birds, bats and butterflies, pollinate fruit and vegetable crops, as well as the other flora and fauna that help sustain cattle and other animals.

In the US, winter losses of commercial honeybee colonies have averaged roughly 30 percent over the last five years, according to a Washington Post article last May. Those losses led to the first National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a bureaucratic plan announced in May to save the bee, other small winged animals and their breeding grounds.

President Barack Obama’s strategy seeks to manage the way forests burned by wildfire are replanted, the way offices are landscaped and the way roadside habitats where bees feed are preserved.

“Obama gets it,” said Lin, who has been a beekeeper since his teens. “We’ve already been doing these things for a long time.”

Now American beekeepers and national nursery administrators are starting to look at Israel’s pollination methods, and the trees they’ve used to help the birds as well as the bees.

“They’re starting to work on growing plants under trees, to create a whole system of undergrowth,” said Hagay Yavlovich, who manages the seed and nursery department at KKL. “When I was at a conference in the US, they wanted lists of which trees, and which bushes. What’s interesting is that we work with some American bushes, from Texas. Sometimes you need someone else to look at what you already have.”

A eucalyptus tree grows in the US

Eucalyptus trees were first planted in Israel to help drain the country’s swamps, drawing water through the soil that then evaporated through the trees’ leaves, stems and flowers. When the KKL tree-keepers and local beekeepers researched flowering trees that could help extend Israel’s short blossoming season, they came back to the native Australian tree, finding 80 out of the 700 varietals that worked in Israel, as well as carob and jujube trees.

“The goal is mixed,” said Aviv Eisenband, director of JNF’s Forestry and Professional Development Department. “We’re looking to make Israel more green, to offer more food options for the bees, to help soften the effects of urbanization.”

Aviv Eisenband, a KKL treekeeper, says flowering trees like the eucalyptus help stave off the problematic effects of urbanization (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Aviv Eisenband, a KKL tree-keeper, says that flowering trees like the eucalyptus help stave off the problematic effects of urbanization. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The JNF is also offering eucalyptus seeds to India and Jordan, countries with similar climates to Israel and a growing pollination shortage.

“It’s all a little easier to figure out here,” added Eisenband. “Our fields are smaller, our winters aren’t as hard.”

In Israel, Keren Kayemet works regularly with several countrywide corporations, including water company Mekorot, Route 6 and the Israel Defense Forces. They’re all organizations regularly engaging in construction projects that contribute to the urbanizing shift, threatening the survival of local grasses, trees and flowers, said Eisenband.

“Part of planning a new road is cooperating on what kinds of plantings, especially when it’s across the country,” explained Eisenband. “They have to allow nature and insects to stay alive and let natural weeds grow.”

It can be a tough process, he admitted, causing frequent arguments and “lots of meetings in the Ministry of Agriculture.”

And despite the growth of the new trees, including those closer to home, the nation’s beekeepers end up doing what Lin does — placing hives around the country, from north to south, taking advantage of the slightly different climates and further extending their flowering seasons.

“I can plant eucalyptus, but I still have 1,000 hives and I have to plant them all over the country in order to have enough honey,” said Lin.

Seasonal stress

It’s the week before Rosh Hashanah, one of the busiest times at Lin’s Bee Farm, the honeybee farm run by Lin and his family, which includes his wife and children, as well as his sister and brother-in-law. Lin was 16 — his farmer father was born in Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek in the Jezreel Valley; and his mother’s family was amongst the founders of Kfar Bilu, one of Rehovot’s original orange-growing communities — when he decided to raise bees.

The farming business flourished, and Lin now plants his hives from north to south, in fields of green avocado trees and za’atar (hyssop) bushes that help create tawny-colored, rich honeys, and under thistle bushes and jujube trees for lighter-colored honeys. The family exports honey-based sauces to the US and Europe, and earns NIS 2 million ($515, 000) in annual turnover.

Israel’s bees haven’t experienced Colony Collapse Disorder, “for now,” said Lin. “We hope it won’t come here, but you never know.”

The red-capped gum, one of 80 types of eucalyptus trees planted in Israel each year (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The red-capped gum, one of 80 types of eucalyptus trees planted in Israel each year. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In the meantime, he’s pleased about the flowering eucalyptus, fingering the red, bell-shaped flowers of the red-capped gum, another variety researched by KKL and then planted throughout Israel, as well as in his neighborhood lot.

“We planted trees in an empty lot in Sitriya,” he said, pointing to the neighboring moshav. “Now it’s full of eucalyptus trees, and the land looks better. And the honey? It tastes great.”

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