Standing on a grassy rooftop overlooking the East River, beekeeper Liane Newton, decked out in a full bee suit, mask and yellow rubber gloves, carefully pried open one of her hives.
Though the honey-harvesting season had ended, she was monitoring the brood (bee eggs) to make sure the upcoming year would be as fruitful as the last. The 2014 harvest was one of the best in a decade, she said, crediting the high pollen count, mild summer, and significant snow and rainfall. A managed hive can contain as many as 80,000 bees in peak season, and can produce 100 pounds of honey.
For Jewish beekeepers like Newton, September is the busiest time of year. With Rosh HaShanah fast approaching, honey harvested according to Jewish values is in steep demand.
“Tikkun olam — the issue of sustainability is a major point of concern in today’s world; beekeeping clearly fits in that realm, because it promotes a sustainable future,” said Newton, 57, who runs nycbeekeeping.org, a nonprofit that provides resources and a support system for urban beekeepers across the five boroughs. Newton, who used the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world” to explain some of her attraction to beekeeping, was drawn to the field after her father died. Though formally trained as a lawyer, she found the hobby while “seeking healing.”
The hives Newton tends are located on the Five Borough Green Roof, a building owned by the New York City Parks Department and located on Randall’s Island, but apiarists, including those who see Jewish meaning in their hives, work in both city and country.
Sept. 8-14 was NYC Honey Week, with honey fests and apiary tours taking place across the city. Today, the city has 101 registered beekeepers with 277 hives, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. HiveTracks, a free online tool available for beekeepers to track their hive statistics, lists 365 active beekeepers in New York State.
And the spiritual significance of bees transcends religious boundaries. In the bestselling novel and movie, “The Secret Life of Bees,” African-American women in the civil-rights-era South label the honey they make with an image of a black Virgin Mary, and see their hives as a symbol of feminine spirituality.
“Every day, more young Jews are taking an interest in where their food comes from,” said Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, 45, director and cofounder of Adamah, a farming fellowship for Jews in their 20. On the group’s farm in Falls Village, Conn., 30 fellows work together to till the soil, feed the farm animals, make pickles and jam, participate in ritual slaughter and harvest honey from the farm’s two hives.
“Our goal is to teach about an interconnected system,” said Sadeh, who said that bees, as pollinators, are a perfect example.
Beekeeping reflects a broader trend toward enhanced Jewish food consciousness. In recent years, the kosher world has seen growing efforts to source food locally and concentrate on sustainability. Grow and Behold, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, ships pastured and ethically butchered kosher meat across the country. The Gefilteria, a startup that describes itself as “purveyors of boutique gefilte and old world Jewish foods,” uses “sustainably sourced” fish to recreate European peasant foods for the boutique Jewish marketplace.
Andrew Cote, 40, founded the New York City Beekeepers Association, a forum for about 300 local beekeepers to learn and exchange experiences, in 2010. Cote, who also serves as president of the association, comes from a “liberal” Jewish background, and has become increasingly connected to his Jewish roots through selling honey in Jewish communities.
Until March 2010, the sticky hobby was banned in New York City, with a $2,000 fine threatening any wayward hobbyists. Since the ban was lifted, beekeepers of every ilk have swarmed back into the city (pun intended), placing hives on rooftops, in backyards and community gardens.
“This time of year, I’m selling honey every day of the week,” Cote said.
Cote, who claims to be the only full-time professional beekeeper in New York City, produces between 60 and 100 pounds of honey from every one of his hives. “Everyone else seems to have a day job — I can’t imagine why,” he said.
From street fairs to farmer’s markets to JCCs, Cote travels up and down New York State selling fresh honey. He lives on the Lower East side and tends to hundreds of hives around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Westchester County. One of his apiaries even sits on the rooftop of Google’s New York office in Chelsea.
Cote comes from a long line of beekeepers and describes his hives as “a box of calm in the urban chaos.” He explained that the recent popularity of beekeeping comes from a growing disconnect between people and their environment.
“Beekeeping is a way to reconnect with nature, even in the heart of New York City,” he said.
David Glick, 29, who works 9 to 5 as an analyst for New York City’s Office of Management, keeps three hives on the rooftop of a friend’s office building, doling out honey in exchange for roof rights. He shares his harvest with friends and family every High Holiday season.
“You can’t get more personal than having homemade honey on the table during Rosh HaShanah,” he said. “It’s become a highlight of the holiday.”
Sarah Chandler, 35, a Jewish educator for Adamah fellows, described how studying the mention of bees in Jewish liturgy gave her students a new appreciation for Jewish texts. She mentioned one law in the Talmud that demands someone leave behind one honeycomb when harvesting from a hive so the bees are able to regenerate.
“For the modern generation of Jews, there’s a struggle to make our texts seems relevant to our current values,” said Chandler, who received a master’s degree in Bible and experiential education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. “By studying the mention of bees in the Talmud, we’ve been able to see that sustainability is an integral value in our tradition.”
Glick says time with his hives makes him realize that he’s part of something bigger. And Cote describes watching bees as “magical.”
“These tiny creatures have somehow plucked honey from the sky,” says Cote. “It reminds me that some great benevolent force — call it ‘God’ if you will — must have created all of this. It couldn’t have just been by chance.”