Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Buzz on the Environment Bee-fore Tu’Bee’Shevat: Beth Boyer D'var Torah

Here's the transcript of Beth Boyer's sensational d'var Torah given last Shabbat.

The Buzz on the Environment Bee-fore Tu’Bee’Shevat
Shabbat Bo, January 19, 2013
Beth Boyer

So there’s this bee, and she’s been out gathering nectar and returns to her hive. She sees a sister just sitting at the hive entrance. “Why are you sitting here, why aren’t you out collecting nectar?”  She asks. “Well,” replies the sister, it’s starting to get cold, there’s not much in the way of flowers blooming right now, there’s not much to get.”  “Not true,” replies the first bee. “There’s a Bar Mitzvah at the synagogue down the street. There are tons of flowers, believe me, you’ll have plenty to choose from.” Her sister thanks her and flies off towards the synagogue. She returns later and sees the first bee just heading out from the hive again. “Did you find the synagogue?” she asks. “Sure did, I just came back from there and I’m full of nectar!” replies the second bee. “What’s that on your head?” asks the first bee. “It’s a kippa” says the second bee. “I know it’s a kippa, why are you wearing it?” “I didn’t want them to think I was a wasp!”

When someone learns that I am a beekeeper, the first thing they ask me is whether I get stung, and doesn’t that hurt, and why would any sane person mess around with bees—they’re dangerous, right? So let me begin by dispelling some myths about bees, then we’ll discuss honey and bees in the Torah, and Tu B’shevat. What we all need to understand about bees is that they are actually very gentle creatures. People think I’m kidding when I say that; almost everyone has been stung at some point in their lives, and almost always those stings are attributed to bees. However, bees, and this applies to all bees; bumble bees, carpenter bees, honeybees, mason bees, and many other native bee species, are not aggressive. Wasps, on the other hands, or members of the Vespid Genus, do tend to be more aggressive. Only females, of both types of insects, bees and wasps, sting. The reason is that the stinger is a modified ovipositor, or the organ a female uses to lay eggs. Males don’t have this organ, so they cannot sting. My kids are able to tell the difference between a worker bee, or female, and a drone, or a male bee. They will get a drone to crawl on them and freak out their friends, who don’t know that the drone cannot sting. It’s great fun.

But the stinger of a bee has barbs on it. And when the bee inserts the stinger into a target, which could be you, when the bee moves away, or when you brush it off you, the stinger remains in you. This kills the bee. It is not, therefore, in the bee’s interest to sting unless it’s really necessary to do so, because if she does, she will die. Vespidae on the other hand, do not have a barbed stinger. Some, like yellow jackets, make their nests in the ground where people and pets can easily step on them, at which point, they all come out to defend their nest. With no barbs on their stingers, they can sting multiple times and survive. Almost all stings people receive are the result of wasps, not bees.  We have three large colonies of bees in our back yard, hopefully I’ll be able to add one more colony this spring. Each colony has in the neighborhood of 50,000-100,000 bees, so in my 1 ½ acre yard I have about 300,000 bees during the height of summer. We also have a swimming pool, a swing set, a hammock and a great area for playing ball, all within 20 yards of the hives. In the 7 years we’ve had bees, we have never had one person stung in our yard who was engaged in recreational activities. I have been stung when I’ve been working in the hives, but seldom, and usually because a bee is particularly agitated and is defending her hive, her queen and her honey.

So now that you’re all convinced that bees really are gentle creatures who mean you no harm, let’s go on to dispel some other myths. Throughout the Torah, Israel is called, “Erezt zavat chalav u d’vash,” The land that flows with milk and honey. The honey mentioned is generally not considered to be what you and I call honey. Many scholars believe the d’vash in the Torah is date honey. It’s easily made by grinding dates together with water. By saying the land flowed with milk and honey, God was telling the Israelites that the land would support their way of life. To have milk, you needed to have goats and sheep. To have those animals, there needs to be sufficient grass for them to use to pasture, and rain to nourish the grass. To have honey meant there was also ample room for agriculture, even date trees, which require large amounts of water to nourish them. To a desert-people, a land flowing with milk and honey meant a land which would sustain them, their animals and their crops—because there was water. It also meant a place where both herders and farmers could live together; the entire Israelite community would be supported and nourished by the land.

So back to what we call honey—the product of bees. There are times when bee-honey, or honey-comb is mentioned in the Torah. There’s a very strange story of Samson, Shimshon, in Judges, 14:8, taking honey from bees out of a hive that was living in the skeleton of a lion which Shimshon had killed a year earlier. In Psalms, 19:11, David wrote, “The fear of the Lord is pure, abiding forever; the judgments of the Lord are true, righteous altogether, more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb.” There is a reference to bees—devarim—in Isaiah, 7:18, and a few verses later honey is mentioned, we assume from the bees. 

But there are now scholars who believe that at least some of the 55 references to honey in the Torah are in fact referring to bee honey. In recent years, scientists and archeologists have uncovered significant archeological evidence of a thriving beekeeping industry during the time of the Kings. In 2007, the Near Eastern Archeology Review published a fascinating paper (fascinating to me, anyway) on the extensive findings of an apiary—the Latin word for a bee-yard—in Tel Rehov in the Beit Shean valley.[1] That is south of the Kineret/Sea of Galilee, about one half mile west of the Jordan River. Excavations at the site uncovered a commercial operation of more than 100 clay bee hives located in the center of a very populated city (more evidence that bees pose no danger to people). Dating of the beehives indicate they are from about 960-870 BCE, placing them during the second Iron Age. To provide context to that time period, Solomon’s temple was completed in 960. In 930 the land of Israel was split into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, and around 900 is when many scholars date the Torah as having been written (those who don’t believe it was written by Moses).[2] These are the earliest managed bee hives ever discovered, and they were found, where else, but in the land of milk and honey! Long before this time, in fact in pre-historic times and there are cave drawings to prove it, early humans hunted bees for their honey, which still takes place in some cultures today.

The very careful observer of detail in the Torah will notice something about honey that seems to be incongruous. That is that honey seems like a food that ought to not be kosher. After all, food from non-kosher animals is not kosher. A common example given camel-milk. The camel is not kosher, so neither is food that comes from it. A honeybee is not kosher, you can’t eat one, so why is honey kosher? The reason given is that honey is not produced by the bee. Let me explain what honey is, exactly.  The worker bee leaves the hive and goes to a flower. The flower produces a sugar, fructose, in the form of its nectar. The nectar is not only sweet, it smells wonderful, and bees’ highly sensitive antennae smell the nectar and are drawn to the flower. They gather the nectar by sucking it up, and as they do, they rub up against the stamen of the flowers which contain pollen. The pollen gets stuck all over the bee’s little hairs and as a bee flits from flower to flower gathering nectar, and gets deposited on flowers as she goes from one flower to another, which is what fertilizes the flower and allows it to develop.

The bee carries the nectar back to the hive in what is called her honey stomach, and it combines with an enzyme the bees produce. Once in the hive, the bee deposits the nectar into a wax cell and then the bees flutter their wings over the comb to evaporate some of the water in the nectar. When it has reached 18% water content, it is thick and viscous, what we call honey. It’s evaporated flower nectar, with some enzymes added in. Then the bees cover the comb with a thin layer of wax to prevent more dehydration. Since the bees don’t produce the honey, the way a camel produces milk, it is considered kosher, as it is not technically the product of the bee. And of course, 18% is very interesting. Nectar becomes honey at that particular percentage of moisture, at Chai!

Honey, while important as a source of sweetener, is just a small gift that we receive from bees. The real benefit of bees is not their honey, or their wax (used for light, in art and in early metal casting), it is the pollination services they provide to flowers. Often, when we think of flowers, we think of tulips, daffodils, roses, hydrangeas, the flowers people plant around their yards or use in bouquets as decorations and gifts. But the vast majority of flowers are not ornamental; they are the precursors to our food. Think of a fruit or a vegetable. This is a very abbreviated list of foods that develop as a result of having been pollinated by bees: okra, onion, celery, beet, mustard, rapeseed (canola), broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, peas, beans, peppers, cucumbers, squash, pumpkin, cashews, almonds, brazil nuts, chestnuts, apples, watermelons, cantaloupe, oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, lemons, limes, coconuts, coffee, avocados, grapes, tomatoes, and really the list goes on. It is said that every third bite of food humans consume is the result of insect pollination, and honeybees account for 80% of that pollination. Without bees, we would not have fruits and vegetables or many nuts (most grains are wind pollinated). We wouldn’t have much to wear other than skins or wool, either, since cotton and flax are both pollinated by bees. Without bees, we would starve (and we’d wear itchy clothes while starving).

That is why several years ago when mass die-offs of bees began to occur, scientists throughout the world were alarmed. Economists were as well, since bee-pollinated crops are estimated to have a value of $217 Billion per year![3] The problem was termed Colony Collapse Disorder, and it caused the death of between 30-90% of large commercial beekeepers’ colonies of honeybees. Given the value of food produced by the bees, this is a huge concern for us all. The problem has been studied extensively for the past several years and while there is no definitive answer as to what has caused Colony Collapse, the consensus view among scientists is that it was caused by a combination of disease and pesticides that weakened the bees, making them more susceptible to more disease. Many scientists outside of the US, have identified a pesticide from a class called neonicitinoids, imidicloprid being one of the most common. Your tree company will often use it to inject in the ground, it is taken up by the trees and becomes present in every part of the plant, including the nectar and pollen. I didn’t mention it earlier, but bees actually consume the pollen they bring back to the hive as well, it serves as their protein source, while honey becomes their carbohydrate.

Bee die-offs have leveled off the last few years, and are holding steady at about 30-40% of colonies. This is not, however, sustainable. There has already been significant impact of fewer bees on many agricultural products, especially almonds in California. Industrial farmers of other crops are also finding it difficult to obtain sufficient pollination; there just aren’t enough bee colonies to be trucked around from field to field as there used to be. The result is not only higher food prices, as supply diminishes, it also causes less biodiversity and lower nutrition, as food may have to be brought in from farther and father distances, including being flown in from other countries—where neoticitinoids are banned, by the way.

So what does any of this have to do with Parashat Bo, and with Tu B’shevat? From looking at the plight of the world’s honeybees, it’s not too hard to foreshadow a plague—perhaps not of locusts, but instead of darkness. When we don’t pay attention to our environment, when we poison it, we poison ourselves as well. The plagues visited on Egypt were a result of the Pharaoh’s hardened heart. By hardening his heart, God didn’t prevent Pharaoh from letting the Israelites leave Egypt, rather, he removed the fear that would have fallen on any mortal confronted with the awesomeness of God. This allowed Pharaoh to behave as he was already inclined to. His true colors, so to speak, shone through in his refusal to permit the slaves to depart, not wanting to understand that forcing them to stay was destroying Egypt. We are like Pharaoh in some respects. Here it comes, we’re living in denial, and no, it ain’t just a river in Egypt! We are in denial of the damage that monocultures and large factory farms do to our ecosystem. We are in denial about the dangers of pesticides. Not just to bees, but to our food and water supply, and to us and to our children.

Luckily, Jewish environmental organizations are coming to the rescue. Here’s where Tu B’shevat comes in. Tu B’shevat is the birthday of the trees. It was important because the Torah requires we abstain from harvesting from trees in certain years, for example, the first three years they bear fruit, and having a birthday allows us to identify the age of a tree and therefore to know when we are allowed or prohibited from harvesting from it. But the holiday has more recently evolved into a special day that highlights environmental awareness and action. It was fascinating to look up the words tu b'shevat and environmentalism together in google and see 118,000 results. Jewish organizations from the most earthy-crunchy to the most Orthodox have all jumped on the environmental bandwagon, and with good reason. It is part of our tradition. During the middle ages, Jewish mystics developed the Tu B’shevat seder, at which a variety of fruits and nuts are consumed. Of course, we now know that those fruits and nuts are the result of pollination by bees.

Today, the Tu B’shevat seder is often a celebration of nature, and has been fostered by many remarkable organizations in the Jewish world. Among these are COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Their mission is to deepen and broaden the Jewish community’s commitment to stewardship and protection of the Earth through outreach, activism and Jewish learning. Another is Hazon, whose mission statement includes: “We start with the belief that engaging Jews in environmental education, action, and advocacy changes them, their families, their institutions, and the community as a whole.”

The Isabella Freedman Center is another such program. They strive to create transformative experiences that integrate ecological awareness, vibrant Jewish spirituality and social justice. They sponsor a program called Adamah, which is a leadership training program for Jewish young adults to teach the vital connection between Judaism and environmental stewardship.

I’ve provided a list of links to Jewish organizations working in the area of environmental stewardship, as well as important facts about pesticides in the handouts. In addition, there is a list of trees, shrubs and flowers that provide important nectar and pollen sources for bees in our area. Feel free to visit the web sites listed to learn more about what they do. You may not want to take up beekeeping, but even if you don’t, you can help bees. The most important thing you can do is speak with your landscaper and tree care companies and tell them you do not want any pesticides of any kind used on your property. Every time you see a yellow sign warning of a pesticide application, think of it as a tombstone for a bee colony. The companies will tell you it’s impossible to do their job without the chemicals. It’s not true, but you may need to find a different landscaper. Don’t use mosquito sprays, ever. They are deadly to bees and poisonous to people, especially children, and they don’t do anything to interrupt the life cycle of the mosquito. For more tips on avoiding pesticides, visit the Audubon Center in Greenwich, they have a rich set of resources for how to landscape without pesticides. Here's a link from Audubon on Seven Good Reasons to Create Organic Lawns and Gardens.   We can all work together to help bees!

Finally, I’d like for us to read together a prayer in our sourcebook by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Please look at page 39.

Rabbi Nachman’s Prayer

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things,
There to be alone and enter into prayer.
There may I express all that is in my heart,
Talking with Him to whom I belong.
And may all grasses, trees and plants
Awake at my coming.
Send the power of their life into my prayer,
Making whole my heart and my speech through the life and spirit of growing things,
Made whole by their transcendent Source.
Oh!  That they would enter my prayer!
Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech;
Then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your Presence.

I’ve brought a small bee hive with me, no bees, and will be happy to show it to people during the Kiddush.
Shabbat shalom!

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