A Beekeeper’s Reflections on Honey in the New Year

During the New Year season we dip apple and challah in honey and say “l’Shanah Tovah u’Mtukah” – “For a Sweet & Good New Year.” Why is it particularly fitting that this prayer is said over honey?

Unlike other foods we eat, honey is different from an animal, fruit or vegetable raised on a specific site. Honey bees are not fenced in, and range as far as a ten mile radius from their hives collecting water and nectar and pollen from flowers. While it takes 40 million flowers to sustain a hive for a year and have extra for our harvest, and while a honey bee produces 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey with her entire life’s labor, honey is not exactly something bees make. As a beekeeper I am asked, “You make honey?” And of course I say, “The bees make the honey.” Bees make honey by collecting floral nectar which has significantly more water in it than honey does, and by then fanning the nectar till the water content is reduced to 17-18%, at which point it is honey. Once it is honey, it the only substance on earth that cannot go bad, ever, it is the only food we consume that is non-perishable, that will remain eternally good and cannot spoil.

If bees don’t exactly make honey, what does? Honey is produced from a vast amount of flowers, from land generally in the care of many people, and thus the bees – unlike other food animals (in this case food producing animals) – are really a public trust. I rely on my neighbors in a 10 mile radius to not put poisons on their flowers and trees. I rely on them to plant flowering plants on their properties so the bees will find forage (food). Forty million flowers is not a few geraniums in front of someone’s front window. It is policy changes that enable the planting of flowering species instead of turf on dozens and hundreds of acres. It is not just planting the edges of highways with pollinator habitat – it is replacing vanity lawns with flowering gardens. It is not just about honey production – it is about the survival of butterflies and native bees, about the 20,000 species of bees in the world.

Honey can only come into existence when bees had enough honey in the Fall, after last year’s Rosh HaShanah, to survive the winter. (Honey serves a dual purpose for bees in the Northern hemisphere, both insulating them from cold, and feeding them during the winter season so they survive the flowerless season.) The existence of bees is necessary but not sufficient for honey.

For honey to come into existence, there must be fertile soil that supports the growth of plants, there must be rain and sunshine. When we say “May it be a sweet and good New Year” with honey on our tongues, what we are really saying is, “Just as in this past year You blessed us with a year in which honey came into existence, in which the land was fertile, in which there was rain and sunshine and bloom in its proper season — so in this coming year, May You also bless our communities with a planet that will be fertile, where the land will bring forth flowers and fruit, where there will be bee and butterfly.

In this year, as we taste the honey on our tongues, may we truly be blessed with a Sweet and Good New Year. And may we also consider, as we read the Rosh HaShanah liturgy which dwells on the natural world and animals and on recognizing and coronating the Divine, that each of us who stewards a parcel of land or votes in an election is part of a public trust. A public trust which sustains not just honey – although, yes, that – but more significantly the health of the earth, the future of the planet for our children’s children’s children. May we resolve to act and plant accordingly.

And may it be a Good and Sweet Year – L’Shanah Tovah u’Mtukah!

Amalia Haas, Bee Awesome,

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