A cloud of bees hovers over the roof of the apiary at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. On the side of one of the walls of the structure, built in the 1950s as a place to harvest the honey, bees have built two natural hives. Telem Galili, who was born on the kibbutz, is a third-generation beekeeper. His grandmother, Itka Galili, one of the very few female beekeepers in the apiary’s 90-year history, began working here in the 1940s. Her son Moshe joined her in the 1960s, and her grandson Telem, who has a bee buzzing around him wherever he goes in the apiary, got into the world of bees in 2006. Kibbutz old-timers say that ‘the entry test for the apiary team was simple – If you didn’t run away after the first day, after the first sting, you were considered one of us.”
Kibbutz elders refer to the new generation of beekeepers, like Telem, 40, and his colleague Ehud Halevy, 54, as “the young guys.” Halevy was not born on the kibbutz, but moved here more than a generation ago when he married the daughter of Shalom Yisraeli, one of the veteran beekeepers. “Look around,” he says with feeling while standing next to a collection of beehives in nearby Moshav Elifelet. “At this time of year, the hillsides still look barren, but the squill and other delicate flowers have already poked their heads up. The bees that come into the hive carry flower pollen on their legs, the queen resumes laying eggs and new life is born.”
Halevy and Galili both left positions in education to devote themselves to the business of honey, and even after nearly a decade in the field, the affection and awe they feel for the bees is evident. They go about their work while quoting verses from a book of poems celebrating the diligent creatures written by David Shor, one of the kibbutz’ pioneer beekeepers.
The beekeepers, young and old, go out to tend 1,200 hives scattered among different pasture areas in the north, from the northern Golan Heights to Lake Kinneret. Retirees help to maintain the apiary on the kibbutz, especially on days when honey is being harvested. Ze’ev Nemirovsky, who was born in 1936 and has been working with the bees for more than 40 years, pulls off his shirt, revealing a muscular body, and demonstrates his expertise – collecting honey from the honeycombs. In the past, this work was done by hand. Now it is done using electric centrifuges. In his more youthful days, Nemirovsky, a man of few words, preferred working back at the apiary than being out with the bees. “It’s not easy,” he explains. “You work out in the heat, fully covered, you get stung, and you have to work slowly so as not to upset the bees. I’m a conservative kind of guy. I’m not looking for challenges.”
Shalom Yisraeli, by contrast, is quite talkative. He grew up with Nemirovsky and is known as the unofficial historian of the kibbutz’s honey industry. “Natan Goldberg was the one who founded the honey industry on the kibbutz,” says Yisraeli, who has a long white beard and an impish face. “The first few hives were set up in 1924 or 1925. In Eliezer Shmueli’s book I found a story about Alexander Zaid, who planted a field of cucumbers on Kfar Giladi and not a single cucumber came up. He went to Ayelet Hashahar to consult with Goldberg, who explained to him that the cucumber plants needed pollination and he promised him that if he did another planting, he would loan him a beehive. Zaid planted again, the beehive was transported to Kfar Giladi on the back of a mule and for the first time the people of Kfar Giladi got to eat cucumbers they had grown themselves. Goldberg, who was one of the first six pioneers who founded Ayelet Hashahar in 1915, eventually left the kibbutz in anger and disgrace, though I still can’t tell you the reason why, and others took his place.
With a wily smile and juicy commentary (“There’s no beekeeper brotherhood. The brotherhood is to push the other guy aside”), Yisraeli ticks off the names of the kibbutz beekeepers through the generations. Ayelet Hashahar celebrated its centennial this year. At the apiary, which has been running for 90 years, they came up with a fitting tribute – a special honey with labels featuring portraits of 15 of the most prominent beekeepers, going back to the 1920s. The lovely black-and-white drawings by Halevy, who proposed the idea, are accompanied by brief texts, such as: “When a bee would sting Yitzhak Lagar, he would gently try to remove its stinger from his skin, so it wouldn’t die. ‘Fly away, bubeleh’ he would say to it as he let it go.”
“The apiary was always profitable, but not enough to be the basis of the kibbutz’s livelihood,” says Yisraeli. “It provided a good living for the people who worked there, except in drought years. In the 1970s, we reached a peak, with 2,400 hives, and in the 1980s, after the arrival of the Varroa mite, we hit a low of 500 hives.” Except for the honey that made its way to the kibbutzniks’ tables, the rest was collected in big barrels and sold to the big companies that control the honey market in Israel.
The young folk who have taken over the reins want to breathe new life into the business and to change things. Most of Ayelet Hashahar’s honey still finds its way to the same large companies (which for the most part do not manufacture honey but just repackage and sell honey from different apiaries). But in recent years they have also been selling various types of honey differentiated by type of blossom (such as jujube, eucalyptus and avocado); by region (the Golan Heights or the banks of the Jordan River); or the harvesting season.
In other words, when you buy a jar of honey “produced” by the big companies, you are contributing to the monopolization and uniformity of the Israeli honey industry. If you buy honey straight from local producers, you get honey that is superior in flavor, aroma and nutritional value. In addition, many of the small to midsize apiaries are run, as with Galili and Halevy, by dedicated beekeepers who seek to keep the bees in optimal condition and to maintain high standards for producing good honey: They use organic means to combat the varroa mite; leave the first level of the beehive intact so as not to steal the bees’ food; and use sugar water for feeding only at times when it is hard for the bees to support themselves, not during honey-collecting. To promote awareness and help market the locally produced honey, a new website will soon be launched so the honey may be ordered online too.
Ayelet Hashahar apiary 052-940-8748. Future website: www.ayelethoney.wix.com