To Bee in Israel:
Alison Epstein’s Adventure in Beekeeping
The Torah describes the land of Israel as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” There is a lot of discussion among the commentaries about the exact kind of honey the Torah is referring to and very often it is assumed to mean date honey. Generally, however, when we refer to honey, we are referring to bee honey. And in fact, texts and wall paintings depict beekeeping in the ancient Near East; it wasn’t until last year though, that historical evidence of beekeeping was actually discovered in Israel. LiveScience.com discusses the find:
Archaeologists identified the remains of honeybees — including workers, drones, pupae, and larvae — inside about 30 clay cylinders thought to have been used as beehives at the site of Tel Rehov in the Jordan valley in northern Israel. This is the first such discovery from ancient times.
Fortunately, we do not have to go back in time to find out about beekeeping in Israel; modern Israel boasts hundreds of beekeepers, including Alison Epstein of Rehovot. Alison made Aliyah about five years ago, with her husband, Stephen, and their young daughters, Zoe and Maayan. Agriculture/nature has always been a large part of Jewish life in Israel and, as nature lovers themselves, the Epsteins, began looking for something that would connect them to the land. After much research, they settled on beekeeping; Stephen had previously visited Israel and while living on the newly formed Kibbutz Keshet assisted with the assembly of hive parts, so this “hobby” had been on their radar. One can tell that this was the right move for Alison, as her enthusiasm for and enjoyment of beekeeping is immediately evident when she talks about it.
To start, Alison found a local beekeeper who helped her begin her boutique apiary. She initially purchased a nuc (5 frames – half a hive – inserted into a full size box with extra frames to help the bees get started). Alison’s original two hives have now grown to more than 50. With sites in Rosh Ha’Ayin and Kidron, Alison is kept busy tending to her bees. Very much like our lives which revolve around the Jewish calendar, she points out that beekeeping in Israel revolves around the Jewish calendar as well. Queen bees increase their laying of eggs in early spring – around Tu b’Shvat – and the spring honey is extracted around Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. A second, smaller, extraction occurs about six weeks later. She explains that there is a difference between the honeys from each extraction. Natural unheated honey from the early harvest is thicker than honey from the later harvest, which is less heavy and more free-flowing. The honey from Rosh Ha’Ayin (where most of her hives are located) is made from Eucalyptus and wildflowers; honey from Kidron is from a mixture of fruit trees including avocado, apricot, citrus, and pear.
Alison’s Rosh Ha’Ayin hives are located in the forest, a setting which she particularly enjoys. It’s quite peaceful, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and allows her an inside view into nature’s diverse fauna. She has seen quail, foxes, deer and porcupine quills (evidence of the porcupine’s presence) while tending to her hives. Foxes, she explains, are shy and will not come near you. It’s the snakes she is afraid of. Her hives are elevated off the ground on cinderblocks or pallets under which snakes may be lurking, so she wears knee high boots to make sure that she doesn’t get bitten by an unseen reptile.
One thing she will not do before she visits the bees is eat a banana. Bees, she relates, send out pheromones when agitated as a sign to attack, and the pheromones smell like bananas. Some bees have calmer personalities than others and she marks the hives so that she will remember which ones they are. Bees can be bred for different characteristics and Alison plans to start breeding for gentleness.
Although Alison is primarily involved with the apiaries, this is a bit of a family affair. Stephen has a hand in the beekeeping and production, mainly assisting with the heavier work. Zoe and Maayan both have beekeeping suits and will occasionally join her on her weekly visits to Rosh Ha’Ayin and Kidron to check on and take care of the hives. Depending on the season, this can be a short visit during late fall and winter just to make sure that the bees are well and fed with a sugary syrup (after Alison has taken most of their honey) or a longer trip during the period when activity starts up again at the hives. Zoe, more interested in the bees than her sister, brought a glass demonstration hive to her class and explained to her classmates about the biology of the bees and the process of beekeeping.
Alison has been keeping bees for two full years already; this coming Pesach will make it three. She has the permits to grow to 65 hives, which she hopes to do one day. Alison sells her honey in Israel under the label Black Bear Honey ™, by word of mouth and maintains a waiting list for people who want to buy honey as soon as it is ready/ Exporting her honey, she learned, is too difficult an endeavor, so she has chosen to sell her honey overseas in the form of milk and honey soap. Made from her very own honey and milk from the Land of Israel, Kidron Soaps™ are easily exported and allow her to share the blessings of this land with locals and others worldwide.
As it turns out, by keeping bees, Alison is not just continuing an ancient Jewish tradition, but that of her immediate family as well. When Alison initially discussed beekeeping with her mother, she learned that her maternal grandfather had kept bees on his farm in Oklahoma and her mother assisted him. Serendipitously, Alison’s girls represent a fourth generation of beekeepers!
Originally published in the Rosh Hashana 2011 issue of the Rehovot Reporter as “Spotlight: Allison Epstein is Rehovot’s own beekeeper”.