"Bee stings hurt and they can kill," warns Ilan Meiri, an experienced beekeeper at the apiary (bee farm) on Kibbutz Yad Mordechai. "But they're only dangerous if you're allergic to bee venom," he adds quickly. As Ilan collects honey from a dripping honeycomb with his bare hand, a swarm of bees buzzes noisily around the bulky white suit and wire-mesh mask that he wears for protection. Without flinching, Ilan continues working. "I know I'm not allergic," he laughs, "because they sting me now and then."
Ilan and his coworkers tend about 5,000 beehives for the apiary (pronounced a-pee-airy), where the air is thick with buzzing and the smell of honey. The hives are home to between 50,000 and 750,000 bees. No one knows the exact number because the size of a hive's swarm varies widely.
"Our bees make 175 tons of honey each year," says Paz Reizel, now 23, who started working in the kibbutz's apiary when he was 8 years old. "I was terrified at first," he recalls. "I got stung up to 30 times a day, and I hurt all over. But I realized that the stings were not dangerous, and I got used to them. Besides," he continues, "knowing that I help produce honey that is used by Jews around the world to celebrate Rosh Hashanah makes the bee stings worth it." While he talks, Paz seems oblivious to the bees that hover around his face. Suddenly, as if they remember that they have something more important to do, the bees zip off to collect nectar from the apple and orange trees, and from the fields of towering sunflowers at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai.
Yad Mordechai, which produces more honey than any apiary in Israel, wasn't always known for its honey. A group of Eastern European olim (immigrants) built the kibbutz, a communal farm, outside Netanya in 1934. British soldiers stationed nearby taught the art of beekeeping to two kibbutz members, who started the apiary as a hobby. Later, the kibbutz moved to its current location, seven miles south of the port city of Ashkelon, along Israel's coastal plain. There the bee business boomed.
In addition to harvesting honey, the apiary makes an assortment of honey products, including hand cream. "You might think it would be sticky," says Paz, "but it's not." For centuries, people around the world placed diluted honey on wounds to seal out germs and dirt, like a liquid bandage. In fact, some beekeepers have smooth hands from contact with the honey while harvesting it.
"You can wish for a sweet New Year with apples and honey," says Ilan, "and because honey heals too, you get a bonus...good health. Now that's a sweet deal."
Got Milk? Got Honey?
Although the Torah calls Israel “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Shemot 3:8), it didn’t flow with bee honey. The Torah probably refers to a thick, sweet syrup made by pressing dates or figs. Bee honey was rarer in Biblical Israel, and it came from wild bees, not hives tended by beekeepers.
Fending off Foes
Kibbutz Yad Mordechai is named in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz, who heroically led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Germans in 1943. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Yad Mordechai played a vital role in defending the new state. When Egyptian forces swept through the Sinai and Negev Deserts on their way to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 110 kibbutzniks stopped 3,000 Egyptian soldiers for six perilous days before retreating—long enough for Israel’s army to purchase urgently needed weapons. The Egyptians destroyed the kibbutz and its apiary, both of which kibbutzniks rebuilt after Israel secured independence.