A Land of Milk But Not Honey

Blog post by Joshua Boydstun, Rabbinical Student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Bees have become front-page news. The cover story of Time magazine’s August 19 issue—entitled “A World Without Bees”—and similar articles from major news outlets like Mother Jones, The Atlantic and The New York Times are now reporting what beekeepers and environmentalists have been warning us about for years: The global honey-bee population is dwindling due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which a hive’s worker bees will suddenly and mysteriously disappear, leaving behind the queen, immature larvae, and food stores of honey and pollen.

Colony Collapse Disorder and Agriculture
While overwinter losses of 15 percent are normal and accepted by beekeepers, losses during the past seven years have been as large as they are inexplicable. In May, Bee Informed—a research and advocacy group sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—released the preliminary results of its Winter Loss Survey for 2012-2013: During this past winter, 31.1 percent of managed honey-bee colonies in the US were lost, making it the fourth-worst winter since 2006. Of the nearly 600,000 beekeepers surveyed, 70 percent suffered losses in excess of their “acceptable” 15-percent mark. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the winter of 2007-2008, when roughly 36 percent of US honey bees were lost.

Exactly what may be causing these massive losses is a matter of ongoing investigation and contentious debate. One study, published in the journal Science in April 2012, indicates that even non-lethal exposure to neonicotinoids—a group of pesticides widely used on corn and soy crops in the US—severely compromises the health of honey-bee colonies. That same month, the European Union imposed a two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids, in order to better evaluate their effects on honey bees. The US Environmental Protection Agency, however, has eschewed a ban. Instead, it now requires that neonicotinoid-based pesticides carry warning labels about how to use the substances responsibly around honey bees. (Whether the EPA can or will enforce the “responsible” use of these pesticides is another story.)

While these neonicotinoids do seem to pose a risk, bees’ consistent bombardment by a diverse host of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides makes it difficult to define how any individual agent may be contributing to CCD. The consensus among many environmentalists and ecologists is that industrial agriculture as a whole is pushing honey-bee colonies to their breaking point.

The irony is that industrial agriculture, for all its technological innovations and mechanized processes, remains utterly dependent upon honey bees to pollinate crops. Although some crops can self-pollinate (wheat) and others are wind-pollinated (corn), 80-90 percent of flowering plant species require the assistance of animals (particularly insects) to pollinate. In the US, honey bees pollinate one third of crop species: soy beans, apples, citrus, peaches, melons, berries, nuts, broccoli, avocados, asparagus, celery, squash and more. According to the USDA, “Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey-bee pollination.”

Bees and Honey in Jewish Tradition
As we approach the High Holidays, honey is likely to be on our minds. On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (September 4-6, 2013), many Jews eat apples dipped in honey as a way of expressing our wish for a sweet year.

Honey has served as both a valuable food source and as a potent symbol throughout Jewish history. In the Torah, G-d promises “to rescue [the Israelites] from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Consumed together, milk and honey supply key nutrients: proteins and fats (milk) and carbohydrates (honey). (It must be noted that both rabbinic commentators and contemporary scholars point out that the “honey” [d’vash] mentioned in these Exodus is not the honey made by bees, but the refined nectar of fruits, particularly carob and dates [dibs in Arabic].)

Although ancient Israelites did not have apiculture (the technical term for beekeeping), the practice was well established in Roman Palestine and is discussed at length in rabbinic texts. In Bava Batra (the tractate of the Mishnah dealing with civil laws of property), the rabbis articulate the proper procedure for selling bees and honeycombs. One line seems particularly difficult to understand:

[If one buys the] honeycombs, one must leave two combs [behind]. (M. Bava Batra 5:3)

The Tosefta (a compilation of related material that did not make it into the Mishnah) adds:

But if there are none besides them [i.e., if only two honeycombs remain], then one is not allowed to touch them. (T. Bava Batra 4:5)

Why aren’t sellers allowed to sell all the honeycombs in their beehives? Shouldn’t owners have the right to deal with their property as they wish? Don’t they have the right to maximize their profit?

In his commentary on this passage, the twelfth-century French rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (better known by the acronym “Rashbam”) offers a compelling explanation: After a bee colony has reproduced and new swarms have exited the hive, one may claim the honeycombs. However, two combs must be kept in the hive during the winter rainy season as a reserve, in order to sustain the remaining bees until the following spring (BT Bava Batra 80a).

Rashbam’s explanation is consistent with standard apiculture practices, from the beginning of beekeeping up to the present day. In temperate climates, a single beehive may require 40-60 pounds of honey to survive through the winter. A beehive in an area with colder, longer winters may require up to 90 pounds! The minimum amount was certainly less near the rabbinic academies of Palestine and Babylon, hence the need for only two combs’ worth of honey.

Seen through the lens of sustainability, the practice makes perfect sense: By requiring that beekeepers retain at least two of their honeycombs, the rabbis ensure that beekeepers will not endanger the long-term health of their bees or their business for the sake of a quick buck. The bees’ need for safety, security and sustenance is inseparable from the beekeeper’s need for an ongoing and reliable source of income. (Of course, beekeepers are allowed to sell their entire hive, bees and combs included, to new owners.)

Alas, the simple and self-evident wisdom of Rashbam is unwelcome in the world of industrial agriculture. One study suggests that bee populations may be suffering from malnutrition caused, in part, by the practice of using bees to pollinate monocultures, rather than a range of different species. Another study proposes that the use of high-fructose corn syrup as a substitute for honey reserves during the cold, winter months may contribute significantly to malnutrition and susceptibility to Colony Collapse Disorder.

As we look forward to a sweet new year inaugurated with apples (that were pollinated by bees) and honey (produced by bees), we would do well to reflect on the fragile beauty that we often take for granted. Warning labels on dangerous pesticides are simply not good enough. If we want to ensure a place for bees in our future—as our partners in food production, and as valued members of the biosphere—we need to recognize that our fate is intertwined with theirs. If we want our names to be written in the book of life, then we need to ensure that the bees are inscribed alongside us.

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