Here's the buzz about Rosh Hashanah: Beyond a congregation or
family, it takes a hive to have a holiday. You may have your tickets, new dress
or suit and High Holidays app, but without the honey in which to dip a slice of
apple, where would you be?
We wish each other "Shanah Tovah umetuka" "a
good and sweet New Year." To further sweeten the calendar change we eat honey
cake - even Martha Stewart has a recipe - and teiglach, little twisted balls of
dough boiled in honey syrup.
Little do we realize that to fill a jar or
squeeze bottle containing two cups of the sticky, golden stuff, a hive of
honeybees must visit 5 million flowers.
For most of us, the honey seems a
somehow natural byproduct of the cute, bear-shaped squeeze bottle that we pick
up at the store. But for beekeeper Uri Laio, honey is like a gift from heaven.
His motto, "Honey and Beeswax with Intention," is on his website,
"Everyone takes honey for granted; I did," says
Laio, who is affiliated with Chabad and attended yeshiva in Jerusalem and
Uri Laio, the Chassidic Beekeeper, on his craft: 'You need to be calm."
Not wanting to take my holiday honey for granted anymore,
I suited up along with him in a white cotton bee suit and hood to visit the
hives he keeps near the large garden area of the Highland Hall Waldorf School,
an 11-acre campus in Northridge, Calif.
After three years of beekeeping -
he also leads sessions with the school's students - Laio has learned to
appreciate that "thousands of bees gave their entire lives to fill a jar of
honey." In the summer, that's five to six weeks for an adult worker; in the
winter it's longer.
It's been an appreciation gained through experience -
the throbbing kind.
"It's dangerous. I've been stung a lot. It's part of
the learning," Laio says. "The first summer I thought I was going into
anaphylactic shock," he adds, advising me to stay out of the bees' flight path
to the hive's entrance.
Drawing on his education, Laio puts a dab of honey
on his finger and holds it out. Soon a bee lands and begins to feed.
you ever been stung?" he asks.
"A couple of times," I answer, as Laio uses
a hand-held bee smoker to puff in some white smoke to "calm the hive." After
waiting a few minutes for the smoke to take effect, and with me watching
wide-eyed, he carefully pries off the hive's wooden lid.
Half expecting to
see an angry swarm of bees come flying out like in a horror flick, I step
They seem calm," says Laio, bending down to listen to the buzz level
coming from the hive. "Some days the humming sounds almost like song."
rectangular stack of boxes, called a Langstroth Hive, allows the bee colony -
estimated by Laio to be 50,000 - to efficiently build the waxy cells of
honeycomb into vertical frames.
As he inspects the frames, each still
holding sedated bees, he finds few capped cells of honey. The bees have a way to
go if Laio is going to be able to put up a small number of jars for sale, as he
did last year for Rosh Hashanah.
According to Laio, hives can be attacked
by ants, mites, moths and a disease called bee colony collapse disorder that has
been decimating hives increasingly over the last 10 years.
contribute to the disorder as well as genetically modified plants, he says.
Underscoring the importance that bees have in our lives beyond the Days of
Awe, Laio calculates that "one out of every three bits of food you eat is a
result of honeybee pollination."
Laio practices backwards or
treatment-free beekeeping; so called because he relies on observation and
natural practices and forgoes pesticides or chemicals in his beekeeping.
The resulting wildflower honey - Laio hands me a jar to try - is sweet,
flavorful and thick, tastier than any honey from the store.
"Honey is a
superfood. And it heals better than Neosporin," Laio claims. "In Europe there
are bandages impregnated with honey."
He says it takes a certain type of
character to be a beekeeper.
"You need to have patience. Be determined.
Learn your limitations. Be calm in stressful situations," he says.
are fascinated with it. I can't tell you how many Shabbos table meals have been
filled with people asking me about bees."
On the Sabbath, Laio likes to
sip on a mint iced tea sweetened with his honey - his only sweetener, he
"In the Talmud, honey is considered to be one-sixtieth of manna,"
says Laio, referring to the "bread" that fell from the sky for 40 years while
the Israelites wandered in the desert. "The blessing for manna ended with 'Min
hashamayim,' 'from the heavens,' and not 'min haaretz,' 'from the earth.' "
With the honey-manna connection in mind, especially at the Jewish New Year,
Laio finds that "all the sweetness, whatever form it is in, comes straight from