Let's Eat

Honey Jews

Two resourceful women explain how they bring sweetness to the new year


Rosh Hashanah is synonymous with honey. Whether you dip your apples in it or use it in cooking to sweeten your year to come, it has so much to recommend it. The sticky, golden treat contains sugars, plant acids, mineral salts and other elements.

In its raw state, it has antibacterial properties and is the first weapon a Jewish mother recommends to combat a sore throat, cough or cold.

Most of us will pick up our New Year jar from the supermarket or farmer's market but, for some, their honey will be the result of years of hard work.

Sue Gessler, a clinical consultant psychologist, and her husband, Benedict Roth, keep a hive in the back garden of their home in north London. And, in case you were wondering, she explains that producing your own is not going to save you money. "It's the costliest jar of honey you'll ever eat," she laughs. "But when we took on the bees, our goal was never just about the honey.

We did it for environmental reasons."

"It's Tikkun Olam," adds Roth. "The fruit trees cannot function without pollination, and pollination cannot happen without the bees."

Six years ago, the pair attended a session at Limmud in the Woods on beekeeping, and were totally enthused by it. "Ben had kept bees when he was at school, but I knew nothing, so we signed up to hear more," says Gessler, who then enrolled on a beekeeping course funded by the Mayor's Capital Bee project.

Finchley grandmother Deena Kestenbaum was on the same course. "It was a one-year, funded course with the end goal of us taking hives back into the community," she explains.

Kestenbaum's rabbi, Jonathan Wittenberg, had asked to her to get involved in a project set up by former Limmud chair, Kevin Sefton who, having kept bees in the past, planned to use them to unite people and break down cross-communal barriers. "The purpose of the project was for them to make honey for Rosh Hashanah," says Sefton. "Most of us go to shul for Rosh Hashanah and we were looking for something suitable for all levels of religious engagement. There are few kashrut issues with honey and it's very special to start the New Year with honey from your own bees."

Gessler and Kestenbaum were among the several participants who continued to keep bees. Kestenbaum's took over the hives in the grounds of the New North London Synagogue (NNLS) and Gessler's stayed in her garden. She'd planned to house them in the grounds of Rimon Jewish Primary School in Golders Green, but felt that the grounds weren't big enough for the bees and children to co-exist safely.

It's not, she stresses, that keeping bees is hazardous but she understands people can be fearful. "Our neighbours were very nervous of our hive. I also initially had a high level of anxiety around them but I knew I needed exposure to them to overcome it. Honey bees are not interested in us - they're going about their work. They have even accidentally flown directly into my head if I'm standing near the hive, but they leave me alone."

The odd sting goes with the territory. Wearing the wrong clothing doesn't help. Gessler says she was stung when wearing loose trousers in which a bee became trapped. Kestenbaum confesses to multiple stings at the start of her beekeeping career: "I was wearing

a beekeeping suit that had come apart in places. I was silly," she admits. "After my third telling-off by a nurse at Finchley Memorial Hospital, I made sure

I was hermetically sealed each time

I tended my bees."

Kestenbaum keeps three hives at NNLS and this summer will be adding three more. She admits that, after the year-long course, she was panic-stricken at the thought of sole responsibilty for her bees. "That colony didn't survive their first winter. I didn't know they needed enough honey and sugar in late autumn and through the winter. Unlike bumble bees and wasps, honey bees do not hibernate, but stay active, clustering together to stay warm. They need plenty of food stored from the summer to do this. They all died and I felt hideous."

A colony of bees needs about 20–30lb of honey to feed them over the winter, but can produce up to 60lb or more, so should have an excess. With the average hive producing 40–50lb in a summer, there should be enough to harvest plus enough nourishment.

Both Deena Kestenbaum and Sue Gessler have lost colonies that swarmed. "Swarming is a natural part of the process," Gessler explains. "When the bee colony outgrows its home, the queen leaves, taking half of her colony with her. She leaves behind new virgin queens, one of whom will take over. It leaves your hive weaker. It's inevitable, although some beekeepers do remove queen cells regularly to try to prevent it happening, or give them more space so they don't feel the need to swarm."

Gessler has also lost a colony to colony collapse disorder, a syndrome that has affected honey bees worldwide. The cause remains a mystery though some claim it is linked to pesticide use. It has been the reason for the recent decline in honey-bee numbers, which has had

a knock-on effect on agriculture, as bees are so essential to pollination.

After Gessler lost her colony, she and Roth harvested the honey left behind. "It was just before Pesach," she recalls, "and our rabbi - Rabbi Harvey Belovski - confirmed it was kosher for Passover. We harvested about seven kilos to give as an unusual Pesach gift. It tasted beautiful - London honey is fantastic."

Honey produced in urban areas like London is full of different flavour notes as the bees make it with nectar from a wide range of flowers from different gardens. Bees have a flying range from their hives of up to four miles but tend to stay within a mile radius.

Where producers want honey from a single flower-type, hives are transported to areas out of range to other sources. Heather honey, for instance, is made from wild heather by bees whose hives have been situated on the moors. It has a jelly-like consistency unlike other honeys, and each type of honey's texture and colour is affected by the flowers the bees have used to make it.

In general, artisan honey (made by small producers) is an entirely different product from mass-produced, blended honeys which are flash heated to ensure a uniform texture. Artisan honey is removed from hives in a way that preserves the fragrance, which varies according to flowers, season and year. Many will improve with age, becoming more full-bodied and mellow.

As well as the side benefit of top-notch honey, the new beekeepers have found the experience highly rewarding. "Having your own honey makes you feel so unbelievably connected to the cycle of the world," says Kestenbaum. "I feel tremendous humility regarding the human place in the natural world. Bees are such sophisticated creatures." 

Deena Kestenbaum welcomes visitors who want to learn more at her hives. She is at NNLS every Sunday morning and has spare bee suits for adults and children. If you would like to visit her, contact her on 07977 200 272.

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