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Beekeeping in Israel

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ID:	7210Most beekeepers are familiar with this cave picture from Spain, showing someone collecting honey from bees, either from a tree or a cave.

Some estimates of its age push it back to about 15,000 years ago. But this is only a picture. In 2007, a group of archeologists, digging in Tel Rehov, in northern Israel's Bet Shean valley, about 30 km (20 miles) south of the Sea of Galilee, uncovered the world's oldest known apiary. Dated to about 3,000 years ago, about the time of King David, the apiary includes hives, honeycombs, bee's wax and even enough bee remains, to have enabled DNA testing. This showed the bees to be genetically similar to the races of bees raised in Turkey today.

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ID:	7211Even more amazing is the fact that the straw and clay "jar-hives" found, are almost identical to those that were in common use in Israel until about 1890, when "modern" wooden beekeeping equipment took over. Eventually, the Langstroth hive became the standard throughout the country, but for at least 3,000 years, the hives used in the country were basically unchanged.

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ID:	7212Beekeepers made large clay cylindrical jars, about 80 cm (about 32 in) long with a diameter of about 40cm (about 16 in). One side was tapered to a narrow opening while the base was removable. The jars were laid lengthwise, in rows, one on top of the other. The bees would enter and exit from the narrow opening while the removable back allowed the beekeeper access to the insides for manipulation and honey harvest. The jar hives, being of a non-expandable size, required a different form of management than that practiced today and involved frequent swarming and hive division since the limited and unchangeable volume of the jar would fill with bees and honey.

There's no way of knowing just how many beekeepers there were in ancient Israel but from records current in 2001, there are almost 80,000 hives throughout the country, and over 450 beekeepers registered with the Department of agriculture's division of apiculture. Most of the country's beekeepers manage less than 100 hives, while only 24 have more than 1,000. Hives are distributed throughout the country, wherever there are plants that can support them. This means that the large southern area, the Negev desert is mostly not occupied with hives.

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ID:	7213Israel is a small country (about the size of New Jersey), but packed into its small confines one can find climatic changes from the hot and dry Negev desert in the south, to the almost alpine, in the northern Golan Heights. The climate doesn't only change from the south to the north but also from the west to the east. Starting at sea level along the Mediterranean coast going east, the topography climbs up a central mountain ridge that more or less divides the country in half from the north to the south. After cresting the mountains, it's a decline, sometimes gradual, sometimes down steep cliffs, to the below-sea-level Jordan valley, which boasts having the lowest point on the surface of the globe, at the Dead Sea.

All this makes for a complex blend of microclimates which support a wide variety of floral species, native and imported, wild and cultivated, complicated by the Mediterranean rain patterns of usually, wet winters and long dry summers. Anyone who has studied the Biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, knows that the rain patterns can be highly variable. Dry winters and famine were not rare occurrences. However, since the establishment of the present day state of Israel in 1948, enormous investments have been made to provide adequate water supplies available at all times, throughout the country. The Sea of Galilee (Kinneret) in the north serves as the main national reservoir and a network of pipelines distributes water from there, from drilled wells, from desalinated sea water, from runoff rain water and from recycled waste-water for use throughout the country, making a world of difference for agriculture in general and for beekeeping as a byproduct.

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ID:	7214The beekeeping year is generally considered to begin in February, when the earliest of the spring flowers begin to bloom along the coast. As the season progresses, one variety of plant after another begins to bloom, further and further inland, gradually climbing the hills and moving into the mountains. Many beekeepers move their hives, following these waves of flowers as the season progresses. Others specialize in moving their hives for pollination services while others yet, simply make do with the floral blessings that appear in their own neighborhood, leaving their hives on the same stands all year long.

When a yearning for the return to Zion started an influx of Jews to settle in Palestine beginning in the 1880's, few Jews had a background in agriculture. However the concept of resettling the land and the desire to make it once again agriculturally productive was one of the major ambitions of the settlers. Lacking any "time hallowed" traditions of farming meant that the Zionist pioneers were open to learning the arts of agriculture from scratch. Many errors were made along the way, but the desire to meet the challenge gave them a willingness to research for new methods of producing what was best suited for each area of the country, and they rapidly applied the results of their researches without holding on to old methods simply because they were traditional. As the political foundations for the State of Israel were gradually developed, not only a democracy was established. An educational system was also developed and a great deal of importance was assigned to agricultural research.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has a school of agriculture, located in Rehovot, near the central coastal plain, where apiculture is one of the courses of study taught and where new generations of beekeepers and bee researchers are trained.

Eventually all branches of agriculture were organized under the auspices of the Ministry of agriculture, and this, of course, also included apiculture. Aside from requiring that all beekeepers register the number and locations of their hives, advisory and research services are provided. The country is divided into regions with government bee inspectors providing help to the beekeepers in each area. Bulletins are regularly mailed to beekeepers, informing them of seasonal developments in the hives, management recommendations, problems that have appeared, solutions that have been found, yields that have been attained and any other news of interest to the apiculturist.

The Volcani Agricultural Research Institute (located near Rishon LeZion, in the center of the country) has a department of apiculture which employs several scientists, among them, geneticists and bee pathologists, who carry out research aimed at developing improved strains of honeybees, best suited for the conditions of the country and solving problems of the beekeepers. Many local strains of honeybees have been developed through artificial insemination of local and imported races of bees. These are tested in the hives maintained there and queens that have proved to be good producers of strong, healthy hives with other desirable traits, are sold to beekeepers for further honey production and queen raising. By law, no private individual is allowed to keep hives within a radius of several kilometers of this research station, so as to allow it to function without the possible "contamination" of the research hives by uncontrolled exposure to external complications.

Israel is not an isolated island and the pests and pathogens that have been moved from one country to another have arrived here too. Some have come as a result of legal and illegal importation of queens, not known to have been infected. Others have reached us through the natural spread of bees, moving gradually across borders. It's interesting to note how one problem can lead to the solution of another. In the 1970's, brood diseases were the scourge of beekeepers. American foul brood and European foul brood were common occurrences and hives had to be checked for them regularly. Treatment was by medicine or required hive destruction (and the burning of equipment too). In spite of hives being attended to, feral hives apparently served as a regular source of re-infestation and nothing seemed to eliminate these two big problems. Then, along came the Varroa mite. When it first arrived it caused a massive loss of cultivated hives, until methods of control were developed. But, whereas hives with owners received treatment, feral hives did not, and, for all practical intents and purposes, there no longer are such "natural" hives anywhere in the country, Varroa mites having destroyed them. Apiaries treated for AFB and EFB overcame these diseases and for lack of a natural reservoir of unattended hives, the frequency of these two problems has receded into almost non-existence.

Varroa is unquestionably the biggest current pest problem for beekeepers in Israel. Since its arrival here in the mid-1980's, it has been a series of finding a "solution" by the beekeepers and developing immunity to the solution by the mites. Mostly we've depended on chemical miticides to stay ahead of the Varroa, but little by little more and more beekeepers are trying to switch to controlling Varroa by using other management methods, primarily because of the loss of effectiveness of the chemicals and secondarily because of chemical residues left in the combs that affect the queens, queen rearing and the honey. Because we are a small country and beekeeping is well organized, one management method used that has been of value, is the application of coordinated miticide treatments throughout the country. By having all (or as many as possible) of the beekeepers treat for Varroa at the same time, re-infestation of clean hives is considerably reduced. This is coordinated through the apicultural advisory service.

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ID:	7215When I first started raising bees in the early 1970's, one could almost manage hives by the "let-alone" method. A minimum number of visits to each hive could still provide a respectable crop of honey. Today, the situation is much more complicated. Economics have lead to the replacement of many citrus orchards by other, non-honey-producing plants. The increase in human population and resultant expansion of urban construction has lead to the replacement of many honey producing fields, both cultivated and wild, with "sterile" cities.

Like with so many other things, adaptation to change has been the key to continued production of honey in the "Land of Milk and Honey". While beekeeping can still be a hobby in Israel, for it to be a source of income, one has to work hard and keep up to date with the latest scientific knowledge that research and experience can provide. Who knows what it will be like in another three thousand years? It certainly won't be as static and unchanging as it was for the three thousand years since the time of King David.

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  1. PerryBee's Avatar
    Good to see this out there again Ef!
  2. riverbee's Avatar
    my sentiments as well perry, and thanks ef!
  3. tecumseh's Avatar
    a snip....
    Lacking any "time hallowed" traditions of farming

    this is 'the cultural' in the word agriculture.