Rabbi David Arfa
OU Kosher, Rabbinic Coordinator
As the Rosh Hashanah holiday approaches, Jews the world over will welcome a familiar holiday guest to their holiday table: the honey jar, omen for a sweet year. But they’ll be eyeing that guest first—for the all-important kosher symbol. What is it that makes a kosher-certified honey, kosher? And, as the product of an insect—why is it kosher at all?
To begin with, let’s peek inside the factory itself: the beehive.
A Caste of Thousands
Honey has been called the life-long liquid source of nourishment of the bee. It is only her surplus honey that she shares with us.
Honeybees are divided into the groups, called ‘castes:’ these are the single queen bee, several hundred male drones, and thousands of female worker bees.
The queen bee is the mother of all bees and keeps at her task with dogged consistency. She will lay about 1500 eggs a day, each spring and summer.
She is groomed for the role, having been chosen as a young, promising, but altogether average larva, by her assistants, the legion of drone bees, and fed a secret potion known as ‘royal jelly,’ a special super-rich superfood, as we might call it, produced in the heads of worker/nurse bees. This otherwise unremarkable larva will grow into the elongated, stately queen bee.
A picture of Her Majesty (center,)…
…versus that of a Worker Bee, Serial No. 258-656, (in plain housedress…)
Drones, true to their name, don’t do much, but wait for the chance to mate with the queen. Only one drone in a thousand will live to do so.
The drone bee, chubbier, bug-eyed—and bored:
The worker bees do more than coddle the queen. They are the rank and file working wives of the hive, doing the lion’s share of daily colonial chores, including feeding the drones and growing brood, keeping the hive’s temperature steady (–more on that amazing feat, later–) and preparing the hive’s food source: pollen-rich ‘beebread,’ and, to our fortune, that liquid gold itself: honey.
United ‘Bee’ Stand
Piqued by the scent and colors of a flower, the bee draws near, to gather nectar, a liquid sucrose (read: sugar) juice, from the flower, with the help of her trusty, if pronounced proboscis—a long, straw-like tongue. It inserts this straw down into the nectary with the patience and industry of a city-hospital phlebotomist—if a bit more eagerly.
You will agree that bees love juice—if you’ve ever tried to sit for a few minutes in your sukkah, contemplating an open orange juice container, or those shmeared honey-prints on your plastic tablecloth liner.
Inside the bee is a storage tank called the honey sac. There the nectar will lie in wait until the bee returns to its roost, to release its motherlode into the waiting mouths of her sisters.
But the worker bee is more than a moving company: she is a chemist, as well. For inside her diminutive noggin are some sophisticated enzyme glands, which begin to process the nectar into honey. These micro-technicians are already hard at work processing the nectar.
‘Enzymes’ will no doubt make heavy the eyes of some readers, who will recall dimly-understood high-school biology classes. So, too, the word ‘substrate,’ which sounds altogether vague and mathematical, like the word ‘subtract,’ or ‘substitute’ (as in second-period Earth Science,) or “sit up straight!”
Back to School
Quite simply, enzymes are small bits of stuff, molecules, that modify and change other stuff. The stuff that is changed is called: a substrate. Here in our hive, the substrate is the sucrose molecule—i.e. the nectar.
The tiny enzyme molecule fits into the substrate much like a key into a lock. In a fragment of a moment the enzyme changes the substrate, unlocks, and sets the substrate free, so it can repeat the process—again, and again, until the entire batch of substrate is indeed modified.
Here, too, the bee uses enzymes, expressed in her saliva, to modify sucrose, a rather complicated, doubled ‘disaccharide’ molecule, to become simpler, sweeter molecules.
The ‘invertase’ enzyme inverts, or splits, the sucrose into the simpler glucose and fructose molecules. Glucose is slightly sweet. But fructose is very sweet.
With the nectar received, the worker bees begin to evaporate each drop. For 15 to 20 minutes they pump the nectar up from their honey sacs, to form a small droplet under their proboscises, to evaporate the water down to 40 or 50 percent. The heavier syrup will resist mold and bacteria, which can be kept, rot-free, on the honeycomb.
But the worker bees are not finished yet. They must evaporate the nectar further, down to less than 20 percent water, so that the honey will be preserved, long-term. They do this by fanning their wings, in a process known as ‘ripening.’ They then deposit the honey a honeycomb cell, with a wax cap, sealed shut—as below:
The bees now have a food source to which they will return throughout the season—and into the winter.
Nearly all of the honey made by the bees will be used as food; only one out of every 9 pounds made makes its way to the supermarket, and to our challah boards.
For all its hard work, the worker bee, in the six to eight weeks of her life, and having flown a total of 1.5 times the circumference of the earth in her travels—ends up producing a mere twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.
In fact, all those twelfth-teaspoons add up to a lot of honey. In New York and New Jersey combined, there are about 70,000 bee colonies, producing over three million pounds of honey, at a value of nearly 2 million dollars, per the 2018 USDA Honey Report. Honey production in the entire United States last year totaled at over 150 million pounds of honey, at a value of over 330 million dollars. Enter the beekeeper, with his ve$ted intere$t in all this activity.
Bringing it HomeEnsconced in its comb, the honey is removed from the hive, and centrifuged to separate it into liquid honey and wax. The thick honey needs to be heated and thinned, in order to filter out the wax and other impurities, as well as the tiny air bubbles that make the liquid cloudy. The honey is packaged, bought—and ceremoniously poured into the silver honey dish—or child’s project baby-food jar with the pipe-cleaner bee on top.
This heat is no small concern, though, to those who are aware of the painful casualties and lost soldiers of the honey-making process: dead bees. How is it possible to heat the honey along with the bees, and keep it kosher? Would this not impart the taste of the non-kosher bee, into the honey?
Yet, per Jewish law, any dead bee imparts a bad taste into the honey and is permitted after the fact. The ever-present need to filter the dead bees out of the honey is considered ex post facto, as it were, and we can heat the honey to remove the bees, with no kashrus concern.
Bee legs and wings, though no more appetizing, have the status of dried bones, which are considered halachically inedible and permitted. Nevertheless, Jewish law requires that they be filtered out, as well—the OU policy at its honey plants, to the satisfaction of young and old alike.
Unfiltered honey, all the rage in this day of ‘raw’ everything, is not necessarily a concern—provided that all of the bee parts are removed. This can be done via a mesh that allows the smaller pollen and other particles to pass through unfiltered, while filtering larger particles such as bee’s legs. This, too, is monitored via OU certification, ensuring that a filter with an adequate mesh size is used.
Also under OU scrutiny are the sources of the various flavored honeys on the market. What is the source of the flavoring? OU certifying rabbis will examine whether the various honey types are flavored naturally by the nectar—as in the case of orange and blackberry honeys, made by Glorybee, an OU company, or whether they are flavor-infused, as in the case of Glorybee’s chocolate and cream variations.
Finally, OU certifying rabbis will ensure that all honey-processing equipment is used for kosher products only.
This May Bug You
With most of the honey process in the furry hands of some very non-kosher bees, the question is raised: How is it possible that a product of a non-kosher insect, is kosher? Think camel’s milk: the camel is non-kosher, and so is its milk. What exactly is the difference here?
The Talmud cites two explanations. One rabbi explains that honey is really a plant substance and is not secreted by the bee per se—but merely collected by her, and then stored in the hive. According to that view, other, similar substances might be permitted. But the second rabbi there
finds a specific scriptural source for permitting only honey from a honeybee.
Per this second view, the leniency is scriptural and specific to bee’s honey, and not applicable to other, similar substances.
For this reason, other types of honey are prohibited—think wasp’s honey. Further south, there is ‘melipona honey’ from Mexico, made by a type of stingless bee native to that region. This honey, too, is forbidden. So, too, is ‘honeydew honey,’ also known as ‘forest honey,’ a sweet substance collected by honeybees from tree sap—the secretion of the insects known as aphids. Let the buyer beware of these deceptively sweet substances.
Lest we feel safe with our accepted honeybees, apis mellifera in zoo language, we must contend with beeswax, the yellow substance that is a glandular secretion of the bee. Would this not be reckoned non-kosher, as a secretion of a non-kosher insect?
Here, Jewish law states that beeswax is in fact an inedible waste product and is permitted. So, too, are honeycombs, the amalgamated network of beeswax and honey. If the honeycomb is cleaned of any concerning impurities i.e. bug parts, and are then refilled with honey, as is the normal process at most companies, and is monitored as such—it can be consumed.
A few nutraceutical bee products have emerged of late that are worthy of kosher inspection. Two pass the test: bee propolis, and bee pollen.
The former is a gummy substance that is not a bee secretion but a compound that she makes: tree resin collected on her legs, mixed with beeswax and honey. The bees use the propolis in their hive as a sealant and for other purposes. People value it for its reputed benefits: antibacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. While it may contain some trace amounts of bee saliva and other secretions, it isn’t a food item but consumed for its health benefits. So, any non-kosher ingredient therein is duly nullified.
So, too, bee pollen, a yellowish or greenish powder available in health food stores—merely a substance collected by the bee, on the pollen baskets of its legs:
But ‘royal jelly’ is a different story. You will recall that this is the special secretion of the worker/nurse bees, to nourish the queen bee. Royal jelly is deemed a forbidden secretion, and not kosher. For this reason, the OU will not certify royal jelly.
(The OU is also on the lookout for adulterated honey. The National Honey Board writes that the average wholesale case price per pound of honey, in 2018, was about $5.25. Meanwhile, the average price of a similar sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, was a mere fifty cents a pound. At that price, substitution and adulteration, while illegal, are ever suspect—as this becomes a case of honey, versus money. This, along with flour and other grain-type issues, presents an ongoing Passover concern, as well, which we at the OU are ever vigilant to address.)
The above halakhic points were provided and elucidated by the OU certifying rabbis—who, much like our apiary friends, are an equally selfless team worthy of our appreciation. These united efforts, of man and beast, add up to a flow of honey—straight to your Rosh Hashana table, for a happy, and kosher, sweet new year.