The season of challah and honey has arrived. And while many may note the shortage of bees — a massive die-off has been going on for some time — when dipping their bread in the sticky sweet nectar treat, the dearth of Jewish beekeepers may be the real buzz.
“I have friends and mentors to engage when I have issues, but none of the people that I am directly involved with are Jews,” said Steve Kroser, a Pittsburgh based beekeeper.
“I don’t know that many Jewish [bee] people that deeply involved in Pittsburgh,” agreed Elisa Beck, owner of Schwartz Living Market, a South Side based store that promotes sustainable living.
Still, there’s Mark Schmidhofer, a local Jewish beekeeper who has been hanging around his hives for more than a decade. Schmidhofer, who makes honey for himself and friends, became interested in bees after learning “that the honey bee population in this country was falling substantially,” he explained.
There’s also Max Jahnke, a Jewish resident of Fox Chapel, who has been keeping bees for roughly seven years.
“My dad started and he brought me into it,” explained Jahnke, 20, who along with his younger sister and father distribute locally sourced honey under the name Hannah’s Honey.
Last week, as it has done for several years, the family-owned company participated in the Apples and Honey Fall Festival, a celebration hosted by Shalom Pittsburgh, a project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“They come and bring a portion of the hive. The kids love it and love looking at it, it’s great,” said Carolyn Slayton, Shalom Pittsburgh coordinator.
But apart from Schmidhofer, Kroser and Hannah’s Honey, Slayton did not know of any other local Jewish apiarists.
“In my opinion the Jewish community in Pittsburgh has not yet embraced an understanding and relationship to tikkun olam,” said Beck, who suggested that by learning about bees Jews may discover something not only about honey, but about faith.
Beginning with Rosh Hashanah and throughout the holiday of Sukkot many Jews plunge their bread into the yellowish-brown sticky substance. A commonly cited reason ascribed to the tradition is that the coming year should be sweet like honey.
But apart from sentiment, there is also much to be learned from the ambrosia-like matter and its busy little makers.
“I see these deep, deep relationships that we all need to understand,” said Beck.
“It’s really cool to see how all the bees can work together,” echoed Jahnke. “They each have their own jobs but come together to create a unique product.
“People understanding how important bees are is just so important, because bees are closer to the bottom of the food chain and people are at the top, and what we’re doing environmentally is really affecting the bees and that’s why honey production and beehives have become such a hot topic,” added Beck, who prides herself on having a bee-friendly lawn.
Earlier in September, CNN reported that 3 million honey bees were killed in Summerville, S.C., after local officials sprayed Trumpet, a product containing the insecticide naled, which is used to thwart crop pests and mosquitoes. The intended recipients of the aerial sprinklings were mosquitoes potentially transmitting the Zika virus.
Along with the death of 3 million South Carolinian honey bees came the loss of 46 beehives.
Such devastation has economic ramifications, said a 2016 study from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
“A growing number of pollinator species worldwide are being driven toward extinction by diverse pressures, many of them human-made, threatening millions of livelihoods and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of food supplies,” said the report.
But apart from the economic cost, there are other implications.
Pollinators’ health is “directly linked to our own well-being,” explained Vera Lucia Imperatriz-Fonseca, Ph.D., the report’s co-chair and a senior professor at the University of São Paulo.
“Without pollinators, many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives,” agreed Simon Potts, Ph.D., the report’s other co-chair and a professor at the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.
Jahnke noted that “most bees are a real help to the environment,” adding, “There’s been a real push in recent years to educate people.”
In Pittsburgh, both Burgh Bees and Apoidea Apiary offer lessons, programs, supplies and treats for potential beekeepers.
The latter, which was founded by Christina Joy Neumann, who Beck called “an outstanding beekeeper,” lists Whole Foods in Wexford. and the East End Food Coop among local retailers.
Burgh Bees, meanwhile, has Kroser’s endorsement. After taking winter classes, Kroser said that by spring he was “ready to go.”
“I picked up bees and went to the races,” he said.
Two seasons in, Kroser is still smitten — or stung — with the little fliers.
“I love it,” he said. “They are fascinating, just observing them is marvelous.”
Beholding the bees could do us all some extra good this time of year, suggested Beck. “Nature is so beautiful and we are so beautiful and we have so much potential [and] we go into the synagogue and we pray, but what are we doing?”
There is a bond between faith and beekeeping, said several local apiarists.
“I am far from a Judaic scholar, but in my almost secular view of Judaism, the way I keep bees embodies many fundamental principals of Judaism having to do with helping the world, having to do with doing good works to foster the improvement of society,” explained Schmidhofer.
“I do see it fitting into the broader context of my Jewish values of being a steward of the world and being concerned for the wellbeing of bees,” echoed Kroser.
And though lacking fellow local Jewish beekeeping friends, Kroser has made connections through Facebook with apiarists in Israel.
“A woman in Beersheba has quite a few hives … she posts a lot,” he said. “Last time I was there we tried to meet up, but it didn’t work out. Next time I go, I will visit her apiary, it’s very cool. After all it’s [in] the land of milk and honey.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.