Rosh Hashanah’s culinary spirit, much like the holiday itself, embraces the new and the sweet. And we joyfully indulge in sweet treats, hoping that this gustatory symbolism will yield a new Jewish year filled with joy.
Last year, in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, my husband, an amateur beekeeper, surprised neighbors and friends with the small jars of honey from our very own beehive. Not only was this a sweet treat for the holiday, but it was also a new one for everyone—how many of us have ever sampled honey harvested in Montgomery County? We received kudos from many grateful friends, who claimed our delicious honey was unlike any they had tasted before.
Until a few years ago, my husband knew nothing about beekeeping. His interest spiked following two simple observations: first, that he no longer saw honeybees foraging in our garden like they once did, and second, that a failed zucchini crop in our backyard garden was due to the lack of pollinators, especially honeybees.
To learn more about beekeeping, my husband attended a course offered by the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association (classes are also available through the DC Beekeepers Alliance and the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia). He also carefully studied online videos about beekeeping. For fun, our family took a summertime tour of Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary in sleepy Floyd, VA. A young, enthusiastic beekeeper led us through the sanctuary filled with a wide variety of beehives and patiently answered our beekeeping questions. The surrounding wildflower meadows, jubilantly alive with bees and replete with luscious pops of color, were absolutely beautiful.
While beekeeping has its joys (honey being an obvious one), what we have all learned is that it demands patience and requires a willingness to tolerate mistakes. My husband began our first hive by feeding the bees sugar water that he prepared himself. When it came time to harvest our first batch of honey, what we discovered wasn’t honey at all—it was sugar water syrup.
There is the matter of getting stung, of course, but over time my husband has discovered more effective ways of protecting himself. (Incidentally, my children and I have emerged unscathed. Our bees fly up high, then out, when emerging from the hive, leaving us unbothered.) We have also had to deal with the inevitability of loss. The bees in our first hive didn’t survive this last winter’s harsh conditions and cold temperatures, so my husband had the unenviable job of personally removing the thousands of tiny casualties to make room for new bees.
Culinarily speaking, local honey is a real treat. We like to call ours “wildflower” honey, as the bees harvest pollen from a wide variety of flowers within as wide as a two-mile radius. This is not your standard clover, sage or tupelo honey. Our honey’s flavor, and even color, varies each season and year, depending on the flowers in bloom at the time of pollination.
I find that our honey’s strong taste is a little too intense as a primary ingredient in honey cake, but it is sublime when used for dipping apples and challah or when added in limited amounts as a sweetener in baked goods and tea. While we do not sell our honey, other kinds of local honey can be found at area farmers markets.
I think of Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of a holiday season dedicated to tikkun olam (repairing the world). Amateur beekeeping is one way to repair the physical world. Bees help to pollinate nearly one-third of the world’s crops, keeping our food supply varied and bountiful, but in an alarming trend, bees have faced dramatically dwindling populations both worldwide and domestically.
Beekeeping takes time, but not too much, and connects us in a local way to global efforts to restore the honeybee population while simultaneously improving the condition of flora in our immediate neighborhood. As an added bonus, our children enjoy watching my favorite beekeeper tend the hives and collect the honey. They learn an important lesson in environmental responsibility even as they sit in our kitchen blissfully licking freshly harvested honey from their sweet, little fingers.