Do Bee Don’t Bee- A Halachic Guide to Honey and Bee Derivatives

Published Fall 2010

As we look toward the beginning of the new year, we turn our thoughts to teshuva, and the hope that our tefillos will be answered for a sweet new year.  This request has been symbolized for hundreds of years on Rosh Hashana by eating challah and apples dipped in honey.1

The question regarding the kosher status of honey is older than the custom of dipping an apple on Rosh Hashana.  There is a well known halacha that states that derivatives of non-kosher species are not kosher;2 this would include camel’s milk and ostrich eggs.  Since a bee is a non-kosher insect, how can honey which comes from a bee be permissible to eat?  Furthermore, if honey is kosher, are all products manufactured by the bee, e.g. royal jelly, beeswax, bee venom, and propolis (described below) also kosher?

  I.  The Kashrus of Honey
A brief entomological review of this remarkable insect is necessary in order to understand the kashrus status of bee derivatives.  Bees suck nectar from flowers with their proboscis (mouth).  The nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac, where enzymes from the saliva break down (invert) the nectar into honey.  The nectar is never “digested” it is merely transformed into honey by the saliva.  Upon the bee’s return to the hive, the honey is regurgitated and the water is evaporated, thereby thickening it into honey which is then sealed in the honeycomb.  Beekeepers then extract millions of drops of honey from the cavities of the honeycomb by using a machine that applies centrifugal force to the comb.

The Gemara3  explains that honey is kosher since it is not an actual secretion of the bee; the bee functions only as a carrier and facilitator4.  Honey is kosher flower nectar, which enters the bee’s honey sac and is transformed into honey.  The second opinion in the Gemara permits honey because of a g’zairas hakasuv, a deduction from a pasuk.5 Therefore, the halacha is that honey is kosher despite the fact that it comes from the non-kosher honeybee.6 One may purchase without a kosher certification 100% pure bee honey from Montana, North Dakota, or any state or country.7

Nevertheless, there are two important issues that one must bear in mind when purchasing honey. Honey is usually described by the flower from which the bees draw the nectar.  One of the most popular varieties of honey, Clover Honey, has been processed by the bees from the nectar of the clover plant.  Orange Blossom Honey comes from nectar that originates from orange groves, where the bees have sucked the nectar from orange blossoms and transformed it into honey.  However, some companies flavor their honey with an orange flavor and call it “orange honey.”  This orange flavored honey would require a hechsher, as flavors can be composed of various non-kosher ingredients.  One should always check the label carefully to verify that the product is 100% pure honey with no added flavors.

The second issue relates to the use of pure honey on Pesach.  Honey has the potential to be adulterated with additives, such as corn syrup.  Corn syrup, a yotzei min hakitniyos sweetener, is derived from corn, which is a legume and may not be used by Ashkenazim on Pesach.  For example, soda companies must substitute this sweetener with liquid sugar when producing Kosher for Passover soda.  Some honey producers have been found to mix the inexpensive corn syrup into honey and illegally label and sell it as “pure honey,” with no mention of this almost undetectable “filler.” There are historical records that indicate the use of flour8 in the adulteration of honey.  Sir John Hill in his 1759 book, The Virtues of Honey…, addresses this subject:  “Beware of honey with a dishonest mixture of flour and other ingredients.”  Although this practice is the exception, one should nevertheless purchase pure honey for Pesach with a reliable Pesachdik hechsher.  This problem does not impact the use of honey during the rest of the year.

 II. Other Products of the Bee9

1. Bee Pollen – Bees have brushes on their legs which collect the pollen from the flowers.  The pollen is brushed toward the back of the bee and is pressed into baskets found on their legs.  The bees add traces of saliva10 and nectar to make a more effective “press,” because pollen is naturally dusty and requires a binding agent.  This popular health food product is kosher.

2. Propolis – Another important product of the bee is propolis.  Bees collect resins from the sap of trees and carry it in their proboscis.  In its pure state, propolis is kosher and is used as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal remedy, polishing agent, and preservative.  However, companies commonly process the propolis with other ingredients such as alcohol.  Therefore, such a product would require a reliable hechsher.

3. Royal Jelly – The most important bee in the hive is the Queen Bee, who attains her “royal” status by her constant extra nutritious diet of royal jelly.  What is royal jelly?  This product is a secretion from the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands located in the head of the bee.  It is rich in protein and vitamins, as well as fatty and amino acids.  Royal jelly is readily available in health food stores, and is a common ingredient in various health food products and remedies.  Because it is a yotzei min hatamei, an actual product that is secreted from the bee, royal jelly should not be eaten.11

4. Beeswax – Used to form the honeycomb in the hive, beeswax is secreted from wax glands located on the underside of the abdomen.  Bees grow from larvae into mature bees in the cells of the honeycomb.  They also store various other products besides honey.

In its original state, beeswax is used in non-food grade applications since the human body cannot adequately digest this material.  It is commonly used in candles, lipstick, shoe and floor polish, as well as buffing wax for surfboards.  Since it is not a “ma’achal,” a food, its status as a yotzei min hatamei (an actual product that is secreted from the bees) does not make it non-kosher.12 Therefore, beeswax is considered kosher provided that no non-kosher solvents are used in its processing, and it contains no non-kosher additives.

Although pure beeswax is generally not eaten, its kosher status is important for various reasons. Beeswax may be extracted to create a chemical used in the flavor industry.  This extract is a kosher chemical (provided that all additives and solvents are approved), since the actual beeswax is not considered food.  It is even permissible for one to chew beeswax for its pollen content, or even to swallow it, with or without the honey mixed in.

5. Bee Bread – This is also known as ambrosia and is a mixture of honey and pollen. Therefore, this is considered a kosher food.

6. Bee Venom – This product is synthesized in the venom glands of the bee and is released when a bee stings.  Using a machine, bee venom is collected from bees and is used as an anti-inflammatory agent or for the treatment of arthritis.  It is non-kosher13 and may be taken orally only if it is batel b’shishim. It may also be taken by a choleh she’ain bo sakana (one who is ill) for medicinal purposes if taken shelo k’derech achila (in an abnormal manner).  It may be used topically or by injection, even if the venom is not batel.

7.  Bee Parts – If one purchased unfiltered honey with bee parts, he would need to strain out the bee parts as they are non-kosher.14 If prior to filtration the honey was heated (in kosher equipment) with the parts inside, the honey would not become treif.15 This is because the bee parts only impart a bad taste into the honey that b’dieved do not compromise the kashrus status of the honey (nosain ta’am lifgam).

8. Apis Mellifica – This homeopathic remedy is derived from the body of the honeybee and is not kosher.  In most homeopathic remedies, however, the active ingredient is less than one sixtieth of the product and is therefore batel b’shishim (nullified).16If the inactive ingredients are kosher, and the body parts of the honeybee are batel and non-recognizable, this product would be halachically permissible to ingest.

9. Honey In The Honeycomb –  This product is Kosher. If one purchased honey in the honeycomb, one may not squeeze the honey out of the comb on Shabbos.  The honey should be removed before Shabbos.17

The bee’s ability to produce such a wide spectrum of ingredients is quite fascinating.  Appreciating these niflaos haBorei, wonders of our Creator, especially at the time of year when the world was created,18 enhances our emunah and bitachon in the Borei Olam, our Creator.  It is also the key to understanding the kashrus status of the many products that are derived from this fascinating insect.

1. “To Bee or Not To Bee”, written by this author, appeared in Kashrus Kurrents 15 years ago.  This articleis based on this previous articleand also adresses additional topics not discussed in the original article.  For a full discussion regarding honey and other simanim on Rosh Hashana, see “Starting the New Year Right: A Guide to the Simanim on Rosh HaShana“by Rabbi Moshe Schuchman.

2. Hayotzei min hatamei tamei

3. Bechoros 7b

4. Mipnei shemachnisos oso ligufan v’ain mimatzvos osan migufan

5. Vayikra 11:21 Ach es zeh

6. Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 81:8. The brocha on honey is Shehakol. It should be noted that there is no issue of bishul akum with honey, as it is edible raw.

7. Honey is one of the seven mashkin (liquids) that are machshir l’kabel tumah.  This primarily impacts on Hilchos Tumah and Tahara (the laws of impurities and purities that were most relevant in the days of the Bais Hamikdash), but also has a practical implication on Hilchos Challah.  Ideally, dough should be kneaded with water, honey or any of the other seven mashkin.  A brocha is recited prior to Hafrashas Challah (assuming there is enough dough to be obligated in this mitzvah) and the Challah is burned. It should be noted that when using more than 2.6 lbs. of flour, one should l’chatchila not knead dough without any of the seven mashkin in the dough (i.e. one should not knead dough using fruit juice as the only liquid).  If one kneaded dough with only fruit juice, a bracha is not recited on the hafrasha and one can not burn the dough after being mafrish Challah.  For further details, see Shulchan Aruch and Rama Y.D. 329:10.  For a list of the seven mashkin and additional information regarding these halachos see Shulchan Aruch – Hilchos Netilas Yadayim  O.C. 158:4.

8. This would obviously pose a serious problem for both Sefardim and Ashkenazim.

9. The purpose of this section is to address the kosher status of these bee derivatives.  It is in no way intended to advise consumers as to whether a specific product is effective.  Consult your physician or health advisor regarding the use of these products.

10. This does not compromise the kosher status of the pollen.  See Pree To’ar 81:1.  A similar issue relates to propolis, as well.

11. See Minchas Shlomo 2:64, who states that he cannot “matir or assur” this product.  Therefore, one should ideally not consume royal jelly.  Also see Tzitz Eliezer 11:59 who allows it.

12. See Igros Moshe, Y.D. 2:24 – V’gam.

13. Since it is a yotzei min hatamei, an actual product that is secreted by the bee.

14. Although bee parts are not kosher, bee legs are considered inedible “atzamos” and are not treif (Pri Chadash Y.D. 81:27, based on Tosfos Avoda Zara 69a – “Hahu”).  The Rosh (Avoda Zara 5:11) notes that bee legs and wings are “k’afar b’alma,” like dust, and are therefore not treif.

15. See Shulchan Aruch YD 81:8.

16. This is true if the dilution is at least 2x (1:102) and higher, or at least 1c (1:100) and higher.  There is no problem of ayn mivatlin issur l’chatchila when a gentile produces such a product for sale in the general marketplace.  Therefore, a Yid may purchase it (see Darchei Teshuva beginning of 108:20).  For a full discussion of homeopathic products and their inactive ingredients, see “A Kashrus Guide to Medications, Vitamins, and Nutritional Supplements.”

17. See Shulchan Aruch OC 321:13.  If the honeycomb is attached to the ground, it is prohibited as it is similar to tolesh.  The Mishna Brura SK 48 notes that even if the comb is no longer attached to the ground (e.g. it is in a jar), it is still prohibited to remove the honey from the comb on Shabbos because it is “mefarek.”  One would have to be “merasek” the comb before Shabbos in order to eat the honey on Shabbos.

18. As we say in Mussaf on Rosh Hashana, “Zeh Hayom Techilas Ma’asecha,” like the opinion of Rebbi EliezerRosh Hashana 10b –’B’Tishrei Nivra Ha’olam’.