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Keeping the Honey in the Land of Milk and Honey

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, Israel’s annual honey festival shines a light on the variety of sweet products being produced—as well as the challenges facing the country’s beekeepers

Dana Kessler
September 28, 2016
Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik
Yad Mordechai Apiary.Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik
Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik
Yad Mordechai Apiary.Photo: Gilad Kavalerchik

Forty percent of the honey consumed in Israel every year is consumed during the High Holidays, when it is customary to eat honey and give it as a gift. So, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, the Israeli Honey Board is kicking off its annual honey festival at apiaries across the country. The festival, spread across more than 10 locations, started Sept. 22 and will continue until Oct. 29, after Sukkot ends.

The festival’s activities include tours, honey tastings, and a photography competition (the family that snaps “the sweetest photo” at one of the festival’s attractions will win a prize). Visitors will have an opportunity to watch the bees in a glass beehive, talk to beekeepers, and witness the process of honey extraction, while kids will have the chance to engage in honey-themed arts and crafts, bake honey cake, and dress up as honeybees.

There are around 500 beekeepers in Israel who manufacture honey: 100 are commercial manufacturers who are responsible for around 80% of Israel’s honey, while the other 400 are small, boutique manufacturers or amateur bee enthusiasts. Together they produce about 3,000 tons of honey each year. (Israel imports an additional 1,000 tons from Europe and South America.) The Israeli honey industry also produces bee pollen, royal jelly, propolis, and apitoxin (also known as honeybee venom, used in a branch of alternative medicine called apitherapy). The Israeli Honey Board’s job is to improve the quality of Israeli honey by setting standards, crafting legislation, and inspecting honey production and packaging.

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in southern Israel started making honey in 1936, learning the secrets of beekeeping from Australian and British soldiers during the British Mandate. Today, Yad Mordechai is Israel’s largest honey marketer—now owned by Strauss, Israel’s largest food-products manufacturer. Under Strauss, Yad Mordechai markets its own honey, as well as honey produced by others. Emek-Hefer Apiary, established in 1981 in northern Israel, is the second-largest honey company in Israel, marketing honey from a number of apiaries across the country. The third-largest is the Ein Harod Apiary, established 80 years ago on Kibbutz Ein Harod in northern Israel.

Retailers stock honey from these larger marketers. But for specialty honey, the best bet is to go directly to the apiaries. Many of them have their own boutique shops and visitor centers, and they’re happy to teach visitors about honey and provide them top-of-the-line boutique honey products all year long. For example, Lin’s Bee Farm in Kfar Bilu, a moshav in central Israel, is a family-run company that has been producing a wide range of products based on honey and other natural ingredients for 30 years. There’s a visitor center and a shop on the premises, as well as an online store. Like most Israeli manufacturers, Lin markets gift packages especially for Rosh Hashanah.

What makes one honey higher quality than another? “The main difference is the flowers the honey is made of,” explained Youval Lin, beekeeper and owner of Lin’s Bee Farm. “In Israel, eucalyptus, avocado, hyssop, and siziphus honey are high-quality honey, sold mainly by boutique sellers.” The honey on supermarket shelves is wildflower honey, which is polyfloral—derived from the nectar of different kinds of flowers. Hertzel Avidor, CEO of the Israeli Honey Board, added: “Feinschmeckers [gourmets] prefer monofloral honey, which is made from the nectar of one type of flower, and they know exactly which flowers they prefer, be it star-thistle honey, siziphus honey, [or] thyme honey.”

The other major difference is between honey that has been heated during bottling, and honey that hasn’t. The honey on supermarket shelves has been heated; the heating process stops crystallization and makes the honey look better. Unheated honey can be found at boutique sellers’ and some health-food stores. Many believe that heated honey loses some of its nutritional value, although this is debatable. What it undoubtedly loses, according to Avidor, are some of its healing, antibacterial, and antiseptic properties.

The belief that honey has healing properties isn’t new. Avidor told me that in ancient times, the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, and Arabs used honey for embalming their dead. “After King Herod ordered his wife, Marianne, to be executed,” Avidor said, “he kept her body in honey for seven years—supposedly because he loved her so much.”

There are challenges facing Israel’s honey industry today. Like other beekeepers around the world, Lin is concerned with colony collapse disorder. “There is a problem in the modern Western world that kills bees around the world,” he told me. “In Israel, the problem is less severe than in the U.S. because our climate is more suitable to keeping bees, but we have this problem, too. This affects not only the honey industry and the livelihood of beekeepers but also many different crops that rely on pollination. In Israel, it affects mainly apples, cherries, sunflowers, melons, watermelons, zucchini, and almonds. This is a very serious problem which was identified about 10 years ago, and a solution is yet to be found.”

Avidor also notes that Israel’s size puts a limit on the number of beekeepers it can sustain. “We are a small country, and we don’t have enough space—therefore we can’t increase the number of apiaries we have,” he told me. “We are one of the most crowded countries in terms of beehives. There are 110,000 beehives across the country, from Beersheva to the north. You can’t place beehives south of Beersheva because there is no vegetation there. We can’t add any more beehives, and thus the industry can’t grow.”

Changes in Israeli agriculture have also put pressure on the country’s honey production. “In the ’70s and ’80s, there were plenty of citrus trees, mainly orange trees, and there was also a lot of cotton—two important crops for making honey,” said Avidor. “Because of the country’s process of urbanization, orchards are being extracted, and there are much fewer crops bees can forage nectar from.” The Jewish National Fund is helping beekeepers plant different types of trees especially for their nectar, said Avidor, so their bees can survive.

While Israel’s honey industry cannot really expand, it can develop. “There are many technological developments in the field,” Avidor said. “One of the new Israeli developments is an electronic scale which is placed under the beehive. It sends data about the beehive digitally to a website, so the beekeeper can check in from home and keep track of the activity in his beehives.”

Apart from promoting honey—the everlasting Jewish symbol for having a good and sweet New Year—the purpose behind the annual honey festival is raising awareness of the problems facing the industry in Israel. “We want the public to know about our struggle to keep bees alive,” said Avidor. “We need the public to support our struggle against pesticides and to support our tree-planting. People need to realize the importance of this. The importance of keeping our bees alive goes way beyond honey. This is about the importance of pollination. Without bees, we won’t have food.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.