All about Honey in the Land of Milk and Honey

The phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” is a Biblical reference to the Promised Land – a land of agricultural abundance. It first appears in Exodus 3:8, which is associated with Moses’ vision of the burning bush. 

Since the phrase was first used, the land of Israel has been changed through centuries of human activities. Along the changes of the landscape come the changes in agriculture in as well, which has become diversified in the last few decades. Want to know something sweet about it? How about honey?

Although large-scale and commercial production of honey in Israel started over 100 years ago, it is believed that this industry existed in the country thousands of years back. It may not be so surprising; after all, honey is one of the oldest foods known to mankind. Honey is one of the culinary spotlights of the ages-old New Year tradition of Rosh Hashanah; honey cake is also a popular dessert during this holiday.

Today, beekeeping and honey production are quite a sizable industry in Israel with more than 100,000 apiaries spreading across the country, from north to south. 

Yad Mordechai – the leader in Israel’s honey industry

Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz in southern Israel, is one of the pioneers of the country’s honey industry. It began in 1936 where the kibbutz’s founders were taught the techniques of beekeeping and honey production by British and Australian soldiers stationed in Israel, then as Palestine (under the British Mandate). It was not long before pure honey was being marketed and distributed. 

After the War of Independence in 1948, the apiary consolidated itself as the country’s leader in the honey industry. The kibbutz then adopted innovated methods and advanced quality control techniques, and it was not long before Yad Mordechai honey became the best known and the most widely sold honey in Israel. And the kibbutz still holds this sweet and lofty status.

Honey consumption in Israel

It is customary for Israelis to eat apples and challah bread dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year ahead during the Rosh Hashanah festivities. And Israelis take this custom very seriously – that is why it is crucial for the country to keep their honeybees healthy, busy and happy.

Israelis consume about 250 grams of honey per head especially during the High Holiday festivals in the month of Tishrei. And the demand for honey pushes to its peak every Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The Israeli Honey Production and Marketing Board reports that Israelis consume around 600 grams of honey per person during the entire year.

Honeybee population still stable

Today, honeybees around the globe are experiencing a dire situation. While the problems brought by the colony collapse disorder and honeybee die-offs are common elsewhere in the world, Israel is not that much affected by these unfortunate phenomena. 

Colony collapse disroder (CCD) is an unusual phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear or abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the queen and the remaining immature bees. The exact cause is still unknown. Pesticides, viral and fungal infections, parasites (most notably the Varroa mites) and climate change are seen as some of the possible culprits of CCD.

Thankfully, the country’s honeybee population has remained stable.  So, how is Israel saving the honeybees? It’s diligent agricultural research, technology initiatives and a national strategy to plant nectar-rich seedlings every year.

The country takes every available measure to ensure that its honeybee population remains under control. As a result, the decline of honeybee population in Israel goes no higher than 10%. This is in comparison to 30% to 50% in the United States, where the problem was so severe that ice cream maker Häagen-Dazs had to donate $1 million to honeybee research. Former President Barack Obama also initiated a nationwide strategy to promote honeybee health.

The Israeli Honey Production and Marketing Board helps the country’s 500 beekeepers to initiate innovative strategies to support a collective 110,000 hives.

The first step to avoid CCD is to comply with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s guidelines for exterminating Varroa mites. However, another significant tactic that for healthier bees and better-quality honey is planting 80,000 to 100,000 seedlings – particularly eucalyptus trees. Every year, these seedlings are planted to give the bees a more diverse and abundant diet across the seasons.

Five fast and buzz-worthy facts about honey in Israel

  1. Apiculture or beekeeping has been a profession in Israel since the 1880s.
  2. As of 2020, there are about 529 beekeepers tending on some 120,000 hives around the country.
  3. The honeybees produce around 35 kilos of honey per hive every year.
  4. Israelis consume around 4,500 tons of honey per year. According to the  Israeli Honey Production and Marketing Board that in the period leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Israelis consume about 40% of the overall annual intake.
  5. There are more than a thousand species of bees in Israel. They most common honeybee in Israel is actually of Italian origin, and is called in its scientific names as Apis mellifera ligustica, which is a sub-species of the western honeybee.

At present, there are also several apiaries that produce quality honey in many other areas of the country. It is possible for visitors and tourists to visit and tour the apiaries and honey production facilities, where they get to watch films of bees and their way of life, attend lectures and participate in several workshops.