When the Miller family of Springfield wishes fellow Temple Sha’arey Shalom congregants a Shana Metuka — a sweet New Year — they do it with honey from their own apiary.
Tens of thousands of honey bees live in their backyard, in a gated area at the back corner of their property. They come and go, pollinating flowers and gathering nectar over a two-mile radius.
On a recent afternoon, looking into the sky at just the right angle from the site of the colony, a visitor could see a highway of bees in flight, leaving and returning to the hives. A dense mass of bees gathered at the entrances, cracks in the boxes stacked one on top of another in the pen.
“The whole experience is spiritual,” said Jonathan Miller. “The bees are flying all around, working, not stinging. It’s serene — like Judaism,” he said. He compares keeping bees to the experience of going to services, and points out that for beekeepers, “it’s the same experience today as it was 1,000 years ago,” which, he said, like Judaism, “makes me feel connected to my ancestry.”
Jonathan; his wife, Alyson; and their children, Samuel, 10, and Jonah, eight, started keeping bees three years ago as a family hobby after taking a seminar at the Essex County Environmental Center in Roseland. The pastime fits in with their animal-friendly household, which includes a dog, a cat, and a snake, not to mention the family business, The Comfy Canine, a dog-walking service. Alyson, who holds a degree in environmental science from Ramapo College of NJ and chairs Springfield’s environmental committee, said it’s all about “giving back to the environment, a way to help mother earth.”
Honeybees also happen to be the state insect.
The Millers have lived in Springfield since 2000 and joined Sha’arey Shalom, a Reform congregation, when Samuel started religious school three years ago. Alyson now sits on the membership committee, Jonathan on the board of trustees. Last year, they started providing honey for synagogue and religious school Rosh Hashana celebrations, as well as providing small containers for the baskets sent to welcome new members this time of the year. They also offer presentations on honeybees and beekeeping to local groups like the Cub Scouts.
From one “nucleus hive” — five frames that fill half a box — they have developed five colonies, three in their backyard and two at a friend’s home nearby. Each stack of boxes comprises a colony, and each box holds 10 frames. It is on these frames, coated with wax, that the bees deposit the honey, covering the deposits with wax secretions. As the bees reproduce, Alyson explained, they add boxes so the bees have enough room. That requires weekly inspections at the height of the season, and every few weeks at other times, entering the hive area and removing the frames from the boxes, one by one — not an activity for the faint of heart, like a certain visitor who was not unhappy that it was too late in the day, and not properly sunny or warm enough on this particular Sunday, to conduct such an inspection.
Jonathan’s comment that the bees don’t sting is only partially true: The Millers have a full bee suit for their children to use for inspections, and Alyson also wears one. Jonathan chooses to go without — and does occasionally get stung. But he claims it hurts only for a minute and doesn’t bother him.
Through beekeeping, the Millers have come to understand something about how agricultural cycles influence holiday delicacies. It’s no coincidence, said Jonathan, that we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashana. Apple season has just started and honey is harvested only twice a year — once in the spring, and once in the fall, around Rosh Hashana.
When they harvest the honey, the Millers make sure to leave enough for the colony, since it is the bees’ food. To gather the honey, they take the frame and scrape off the outer layer of wax with a hot knife, put the rest into a machine called an extractor, which uses centrifugal force to pull the honey out. The resulting product is strained, and what emerges is pure honey, which they jar and label with their own “Dancing Honey” logo. So far, they are averaging about two gallons per harvest.
We sit in their backyard, and as a bee lands on Alyson’s hand, she doesn’t flinch. Instead, she examines the insect, points out that it must be attracted by the honey jars she has been handling, and watches as it crawls around for a few minutes before flying away.
“It gives us an unbelievable sense of joy to hand someone a jar of honey,” said Alyson, who has taken to wearing a decorated honeybee charm around her neck, which, on this day, matches her husband’s “Time Is Honey” T-shirt. “And honey is more meaningful when it comes from within the synagogue.”