Rosh Hashanah is the time to get the buzz on honey

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MOSHAV BILU, Israel — Ever wonder how many bees work to produce a jar of honey or how long it took them?

At Rosh Hashanah, a time when Jews dip apples and bread in honey, a visit to the Lin Bee Farm in Moshav Bilu near Rehovot, the largest family bee farm in Israel, can provide answers.

Bees, it turns out, deserve more credit than merely that of supporting cast in the honey story.

Foraging bees suck nectar from flower blossoms, and carry it in a honey sac — an expandable part of the esophagus — back to the hive. Non-foraging bees in the hive convert it to honey by manipulating the nectar on their tongue, adding enzymes to invert sucrose sugar to fructose and glucose and removing excess water.

"The number of bees in a colony varies with the availability of blossoms," said Netta Lin Cohen, marketing manager of the Lin Bee Farm. "When the queen bee gets a report — via a bee dance — that flowers outside are plentiful, she lays more eggs to increase the team of workers."

Bees forage either for pollen grains in the male portion (stamen) of flowers, or for nectar. Pollen is packed into pellets and carried on their hind legs back to the hive. In Israel, during an orange blossom season with plenty of rain, a hive with 50,000 to 80,000 bees can produce 65 to 85 pounds of honey in two to three weeks.

"Every bee goes in and out of the hive 20 to 50 times a day," said Netta's brother Yuval Lin, who has primary responsibility for the family's 1,000 hives.

And what about the amount of bee power needed to make a jar of honey?

"One-thousand bee days are needed to make 3.5 ounces of honey," he said.

Fascinated by bees since the age of 14 when his father brought home some hives, Lin kept his small-scale apiary going while serving in the Israel Air Force and during college studies. It is now an enterprising family business.

Lin Cohen, an architect who studied at Bezalel and the Technion, took over the job of marketing director when their father died two years ago. Their father was the creative force behind the development of the bee farm and the visitor's center, where more than 20,000 people visit each year.

"I like being out in nature, working with the bees," Lin said.

Like other Israeli beekeepers, he moves his hives around the country to take advantage of blossoming plants and trees in different areas. Sometimes he moves the hives to the sunflower fields in the Negev, to the flowering watermelon, cucumber and pepper plants in the Arava, to the Golan when apple and cherry trees bloom.

"I look for the best conditions for the hives — not just the right food or the right place, but the right position in that place," Lin said.

Fifty-thousand to 80,000 bees packed closely in a hive are able to avoid most illnesses because of the antibiotic and other medicinal benefits of honey, propolis and pollen.

"But I can tell from the bees' smell and appearance, and from the noise they make, if they are well or if they are ill," he said.

Honey has been used for treating burns and lacerations since ancient times, and the Rambam was known to mix honey with various substances to treat medical problems.

In fact, honey was the main source of sugar in days past.

When the Bible refers to the "land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8), it uses the same Hebrew word, d'vash, used today to refer to the sweet produce of the fruits of the land — a thick syrup from dates or grapes. And manna, eaten by the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert, tasted like "honey wafers" (Exodus 16:31).

The Lin Bee Farm offers a wide variety of bee products — honey with nuts, sesame, eucalyptus, almonds or ginger, as well as a whole line of healing and health-enhancing products such as Fresh Royal Jelly, with either propolis, ginseng or pollen.

Research indicates that honey is good for the liver and the heart, reduces high blood pressure and aids general circulation.

Royal Jelly, the exclusive food of the queen bee, is a rich source of B-complex vitamins, as well as A, C, D, E, biotin and folic acid. It is also the single richest source of natural pantothenic acid, a stress reducer, and acetycholine, the key to brain and nerve development and memory. It also has gamma globulin, natural antibiotics, and gelatin to prevent aging of the skin.

So when you sit down for your Rosh Hashanah meal this year, remember how the honey got there.