At no time during my experience in a New York City rabbinical school did I think I would ever be donning full beekeeper regalia and watching as thousands of bees made honey on a farm in Michigan's Amish country. But that is precisely what I found myself doing for the first time this past spring.
In addition to learning about the honey-making process, I've also learned about colony collapse disorder, the unexplained phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from hives causing a shortage of bee honey in recent years. I learned this from Don and Carol Ragan, a lovely couple who own the Windmill Hill Farm in Croswell (located in the "thumb" of Michigan). Carol first contacted me in February immediately after reading an article in the Detroit Free Press about Kosher Michigan, the kosher certification agency I started. She wanted to know what was involved in obtaining certification for her bee honey.
I told her that I would have to get back to her because I really wasn't sure what it took to certify bee honey as kosher. The mere fact that bee honey is kosher is itself odd. After all, it is a product of the non-kosher bee (no insects except for certain locust species are deemed kosher by the Torah). So, how can a product of a non-kosher animal be kosher? It is believed that honey is kosher since it is produced outside of the body of the bee. But that isn't totally true. In actuality, bees suck nectar from flowers with their proboscis (mouth) and this nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac, where enzymes from the saliva break down the nectar into honey. The nectar is never digested, but rather transformed into honey by the saliva. The honey is regurgitated when the bee returns to the hive and the water is evaporated, thereby thickening it into honey which is then sealed in the honeycomb. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that bee honey is kosher since it is not an actual secretion of the bee, but rather the bee functions as a carrier and facilitator of the honey-making process.
All of this is interesting because honey is a staple food of the Jewish New Year's holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Honey sales increase in heavily populated Jewish areas thanks to this seasonal honey custom. Among the familiar traditions of Rosh Hashanah are the dipping of apple slices in honey and eating honey cake.
The Ragans knew that that adding kosher certification to their jars of honey would make their products more popular before Rosh Hashanah. Their Windmill Hill Farm produces 30,000 pounds of honey annually from more than 500 hives. All of their products are now certified kosher through my Kosher Michigan agency. Like many beekeepers around the country, the Ragans' operation has grown from a hobby to a successful business. They began with only four hives that they discovered when they purchased the Croswell farm, but they quickly recognized how their passion could turn into profits.
"We're passionate about making honey," said Carol Ragan. "When we first discovered hives on our Croswell farm we were excited to experiment with making honey. We never realized how much we would come to enjoy it or how much of a market there is for honey products."
Even with colony collapse disorder, beekeeping is on the rise throughout the country. New York City legalized recreational beekeeping last year, and even Michelle Obama had a beehive installed outside the White House.
Many members of the Jewish faith prepare dishes and baked goods with honey in time for Rosh Hashanah. Dan Sonenberg, owner of Johnny Pomodoro's Fresh Market in Farmington Hills, Michigan, explained, "My honey sales increase ten-fold during the holiday season and we build honey displays next to our apple offerings in the store. This cross-merchandising makes it easier for our Jewish customers to purchase both during this time of year. Honey products are also featured in our kosher baked goods department where our most popular items are the apple fritter challah (Jewish egg bread) and the honey apple cake."
While the Bible describes Israel as "the land flowing with milk and honey," it was more than likely referring to date honey. Bees were not common in Israel thousands of years ago, but today Israel has about 500 beekeepers with approximately 90,000 beehives that produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually.
The basis of using honey in baked goods and dipping apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah is to have a sweet year. While the secular New Year is kicked off with toasts of champagne, the Jewish New Year is launched with the sweet taste of honey. And maybe a little sugar high too.