Seeing the Forest From the Bees

Kashrus Kurrents, Fall 2022

Eretz zavas chalav u’devash was surely music to Moshe Rabbeinu’s ears, and no doubt filled his heart with anticipation of a yeshua.

When the Ribono Shel Olam commissioning Moshe to assume the leadership of Bnei Yisroel at the Sneh, He promised that Bnei Yisroel were to be emancipated from their servitude in Egypt and brought to a wonderful land, an  eretz zavas chalav u’devash, a land flowing with milk and honey. This description surely conjured up the glorious image of a land abounding in delicious, sweet milk and heavenly honey, a land of prosperity and, on a deeper level, an exceptional makom that exuded kedusha v’tahara (sanctity and holiness) and the Ribono Shel Olam’s special Providence.

The description eretz zavas chalav u’devash not only serves as a beautiful metaphor to lavish praise on Eretz Yisroel. The Gemara Bechoros points out that this possuk is actually the mekor (source) for permitting milk produced by a kosher mammal, as well as honey made by one of the most remarkable of the Ribono Shel Olam’s creations – the honeybee.[1]

Are All Honeys Created Equal?

The Halacha does not distinguish between bee honey varieties. Addressing the kashrus of honeybee honey, the Halacha clearly states devash devorim mutar.[2] – honeybee honey is permissible. A blanket statement, with no exceptions, no distinctions, unchallenged in Shulchan Aruch.

But are all honeys created equal? While we are familiar with clover honey or orange blossom honey, easily found on our supermarket shelves, there are countless exotic varieties, each with its own unique color, flavor, and viscosity.

Regardless of the diversity of honeys available for purchase, every one of them originates from the identical producer and production facility: the honeybee and the hive. For instance, acacia honey comes from the nectar of a black locust tree. Manuka honey comes from the nectar of the New Zealand manuka tree.

Entomologically speaking, how does this incredibly fascinating briya actually create honey? Let’s take a closer look at the unique anatomy of honeybees.

The Honey Sac: Hashem’s Special Gift to Honeybees

The Ribono Shel Olam created a honeybee with two stomachs. One stomach forms a part of the bee’s digestive system; the other, also called the honey sac, is entirely independent of the digestive system. When honeybees drink nectar from flowering plants or trees, they deposit the nectar into their honey sac. The honey sac could hold the nectar of a thousand flowers.

The honey sac contains natural enzymes called invertase which help break down the sweet nectar, sucrose, into simple sugars: fructose and glucose.  Once the sac is full, the honeybee brings the honey to the hive and passes off the nectar to ‘house bees’ that apply additional enzymes to the nectar. The water content of the nectar is reduced, and converted nectar is placed into cells in the hive, capped with wax, and left to ripen.

Depending on the nectar supply, the nectar can be converted into honey in two to three days in peak season or in one to two weeks as the season wanes. In a small hive with fewer worker bees, it can take as long as 45 days.

Forest Honey

As mentioned previously, the Halacha does not make distinctions between bee honey varieties, yet there is an intriguing halachically challenging source of a raw material from the forest that is collected by honeybees to create a delightful and healthful product called forest, or honeydew, honey.

Forest honey is not produced from blossom nectar, but from ‘honeydew,’ a sugary solution that is excreted from plant-sucking insects and deposited on the leaves of an oak tree. The honeybee collects the sugary honeydew from the leaves and produces honey with the same equipment, enzymes, and honey production protocols as honey sourced from blossom and tree nectar.

Due to the unusual source of forest honey, Rav Moshe Heinemann shlita, Rabbinic Administrator of STAR-K, was asked to pasken whether forest honey or honeydew poses any kashrus concerns. The Rav maintained that the Mechaber doesn’t differentiate between nectar sources. Devash is a halachic anomaly: an edible item is produced in or by a non-kosher insect and yet is considered 100% kosher. All the sugars and nectars in the production of forest honey are converted exactly the same. Thus, forest honey is acceptable.

A Halachic ‘Wanna Bee’

Following the unchallenged ‘devash devorim’ halacha, the Mechaber continues and  states that wasp and hornet honey (devash tzirin v’gizin) are also permissible,[3] though there are those who forbid these honeys. The Rema weighs in and says not to worry, since this type of honey is not prevalent – ainenu motzui beineinu klal.

Obviously, the Halacha is not as generous permitting wasp honey as its honeybee counterpart, and for good reason, as bees are not created anatomically identical! True, like honeybees, wasps collect nectar, but wasps do not have a separate nectar collection sac. A rare exception is the Mexican Honey Wasp, whose anatomy mirrors the honeybee’s and includes a separate honey sac. However, experts describe its honey as second rate and tasting ‘skunky’!  

To Bee or Not To Bee: The Bottom Line

It is absolutely incredible how clearly Chazal understood the briya and all of the Ribono Shel Olam’s creations. They were so clear, down to the kutzo shel yad – the fine point of the letter yud – or, in this instance, the kotz of the bee!

Wishing you and your family a shana tova u’mesuka!

Bee Aware: Your Guide to Honey Labels

Natural Honey – 100% honey, filtered, with no additional color or flavor

Pure Honey – 100% honey, pasteurized and filtered

Honey Blend – honey processed with corn syrup

Organic Honey – 100% honey produced from the pollen of organically grown plants without chemical pesticides – filtration required*

Raw Honey – 100% honey produced by extracting honey from the hive, pouring it over a nylon cloth (a ‘thrip cloth’) to separate the honey from beeswax and bee parts – filtration required*

* (filtration clarifies the honey)

[1] Bechoros (6A)

[2] Y.D. 81:8

[3] Y.D. 81:9