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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Busy as a bee

Local family appreciates sweet nature of a timely hobby

By Robin Friedman | New Jersey Jewish News | September 6, 2007

Jersey Girl Robin Friedman
Mark Muller inspects a frame of hard-working honeybees. Photo by Robin Friedman

It’s a bee-tiful thing, honey.

Our modern world may be chaotic and unpredictable, but the orderly society created by hard-working honeybees is as smooth as, well, a spoonful of honey.

In fact, we could learn a thing or two from these incredible insects about hard work, generosity, and organizational skills.

Just ask Mark Muller of Martinsville, a medical sales recruiter with a hobby and passion for sweetness. Muller has been keeping honeybees for four years.

Oh, and, yes, he’s the only Jewish beekeeper he knows.

“I find it fascinating,” he says. “I was in 4-H as a kid.”

“He’s a frustrated farmer,” explains his wife, Debra Harrison, a chemist.

Count the couple’s son, Zach, 13, as an enthusiastic worker bee, as well as daughter Rebecca, 11.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Zach. “My friends think it’s cool.”

So cool, in fact, that last October, as his bar mitzva project, Zach sold his family’s honey to fellow-members of Temple Shalom in Bridgewater, raising $1,800 that he donated to Magen David Adom.

Honey is the gift that keeps on giving — literally.

“The first year, we collected 30 jars of honey,” Muller says. “The second year, we collected 100 jars. This year, we’ll collect 400 jars.”

“We need to make more friends,” quips Harrison.

Although 10,000 species of bees have been identified, only honeybees produce honey. A Cornell University study estimates honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of crops in the United States, from almonds to avocados.

Sadly, honeybee colonies have suffered colossal — and largely unexplained — losses in recent years, a crisis known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

“They think pesticides might have something to do with it,” says Muller. “And disease. And cell phones.”

In addition to deadly viruses, fungi, and mites, scientists speculate the signals emitted by cell phones may interfere with a honeybee’s innate sense of direction. Honeybees are world-class navigators.

But, happily, Muller’s honeybees are buzzing.

Set on a quiet, suburban cul de sac, the Muller home does not suggest any hidden hives — except perhaps for the hints provided by multihued butterflies fluttering about the grounds. The family’s five hives stand behind a fence near the lushly landscaped backyard, with its vivid profusion of black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, daylilies, and butterfly bush.

Ironically, it’s not the nectar of these showy flowers that honeybees prefer, but rather the more sedate blossoms of wild thistle, goldenrod, and white clover.

“Weedy plants,” says Muller.

A protective bee suit is required to visit the honeybees. White, thick, heavy, and resembling an astronaut’s space suit, the outfit includes elbow-length gloves and a hood with screened veil.

“They won’t sting you if you don’t bother them,” says Muller.


But Muller’s prediction is right on. The bees are so busy — so fully focused on the task of making honey — that they have no interest in stinging, or even posing for a few photographs.

“They’re bred for gentleness,” Muller says, using smoke to coax them back into their hive. “When people think of bees that sting, they’re thinking of hornets, wasps, bumblebees, and yellow jackets.”

These diligent creatures are highly social, selfless, and well-behaved.

Each hive contains about 80,000 honeybees, but don’t mistake “hive” for the elliptical hairdo it once inspired. These hives look more like furniture, white-painted dresser drawers, to be exact.

Each drawer represents a sticky frame of honeycomb. The frames are arranged in slices that Muller can lift to inspect, and eventually, collect. The honeybees come and go through an opening at the bottom of the hives, which Muller calls their “front porch.”

Honeybees can be ordered through the mail — by the pound — queen bee included.

“They come in a shoebox,” says Zach, smiling mischievously. “And the people at the post office, when they hear the buzzing, they get really nervous.”

What’s life like for a honeybee?

Females are usually “worker bees.” (This explanation is paused as Muller and Harrison exchange human jokes about this fact of nature.)

Worker bees maintain and defend the hive, clean empty cells, and tend to larvae, which are baby bees. Worker bees also gather nectar, pollen, and water for honey.

A honeybee will fly randomly when collecting, but when it has collected all it can carry, it will make a “beeline” for the hive.

Worker bees have barbed stingers which can only be used once; if a worker bee stings you, you may hurt, but it will die.

Worker bees select a few larvae to develop into queen bees. The selected larvae grow in special cells and are fed a secretion called royal jelly. If there is more than one queen bee, they may fight to the death.

Sometimes, queen bees leave (or “swarm”) from the hive with other worker bees to establish a new colony.

A queen bee may lay up to 2,000 eggs a day and up to one million in her lifetime, which lasts between two and eight years. Queen bees have longer abdomens and stingers without barbs, which they can use repeatedly.

Male bees are “drones.” They do no work and are stingless.

(More human jokes.)

Their only job is to mate with the queen bee.

(More jokes.)

In the fall, though, when the honey flow is over, so is the need for drones. The worker bees allow the drones to starve to death, because they will eat too much stored honey if allowed to live over the winter.

No jokes this time.

Unlike most insects, honeybees don’t hibernate in winter. They remain active, consuming honey to keep from freezing.

Thirty years ago, there were nearly 4 million colonies in the United States. Today, fewer than 2.5 million remain.

But those busy Muller honeybees continue to behive themselves.


Flowing with milk and…what?

I shall rescue them from the hand of Egypt and bring them up to... a land flowing with milk and honey.

—Exodus 3:8

Throughout the Bible, Israel is repeatedly referred to as a land of “milk and honey.”

But rabbinical interpretation of biblical honey is actually fig or date honey, foods belonging to the Seven Species, the staple foods consumed by the Jewish people in the Land of Israel during biblical times.

The Seven Species are: olives, grapes, wheat, barley, figs, dates, and pomegranates.

Honey, a valuable commodity during biblical times, is first mentioned in the Bible as one of the gifts sent by Jacob with his sons when they go down to Egypt to seek food during a famine.

Manna, the most perfect food ever created which sustained the Israelites for 40 years of wandering in the desert, is described as tasting “like a cake fried in honey” (Exodus 16:31).

Joan Nathan, author of nine cookbooks, thinks most Jews don’t know the truth about biblical honey.

“Unless they’ve read my cookbooks,” she quips, speaking by telephone from her home in Washington, DC. “There was a stone press found near the Dead Sea that was used to extract honey from dates thousands of years ago.”

But interest in these products is growing, Nathan says.

“More and more people are getting into exotic kinds of honey,” she says, adding that date honey can be purchased at most Israeli or Middle Eastern grocery stores.

Still, the buzz during the High Holy Days definitely centers on what honeybees do.

Honey is a paradox. Produced by bees, a non-kosher animal, it is itself kosher.