Rosh Hashanah and the art of beekeeping

“The Backyard Beekeeper.”The Happiness Hypothesis
September 28, 2011

I never told my wife about the bees.

My wife, the rabbi, has suffered my enthusiasm for urban farming with bemusement and exasperation, anger and forgiveness. Much like God Herself suffers the Children of Israel.

Last Monday morning, for instance, after returning on a long night flight from New York, she was up way too early, making coffee in the kitchen, when the two pygmy goats burst through the open hallway door and charged like plains buffalo for the dog-food container. Goldie (yes, Goldie Horn) used one of her mini-shofars to crash the tin lid, which skittered across the floor, followed by a shot pattern of kibble.

“ROB! GOATS!” I heard.

I rushed in to shoo them off and herd them, like a wannabe Jacob, back into the pen, from where they had managed once again to escape.

And where, six months ago, I found the bees.

This was back when I got it into my head that my urban farm, with two goats, five chickens, four dozen artichoke plants, a summer garden, plus pomegranate, lemon and fig trees, really needed a beehive. Because the year before, my tomatoes and peppers had failed to thrive. 

“Bees,” Pete, my very laconic farmers market plant man said. “Incomplete pollination.”

We all know that bees around the world are dying off due to a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder. At the same time, urban farmers are trying to revitalize the idea of home hives. The bees get a small population bump, the neighboring plants get pollinated, the homeowner gets honey. Urban farmers take the idea that “change begins with me” quite personally — maybe too personally.

What I didn’t do was raise the idea of bees with my wife. How do you tell a woman from Brooklyn — I mean concrete, black-hat Boro Park Brooklyn, not hip, home-brew, aquaponic-farm Brooklyn — that you want to put a beehive 40 feet from her bedroom window? Here’s how: You don’t.

I ordered a book, “The Backyard Beekeeper.” Imagine my relief when it arrived in a plain brown wrapper.  

The book was a revelation. Bees are an alien civilization — complex, hierarchical and orderly. You watch over the hive without intervening too much in their self-contained lives. In short, you are Spinoza’s God, they are humanity. The idea is to buy a hive, order a queen and her drones, then put their universe in motion. They do the rest.

The queen produces eggs; the drones mate with the queen; the workers, which are nonreproducing females, build and clean the honeycomb, get nectar, make honey. The hive is the model functional society; the beekeeper’s job is to not screw it up.

The more I read, the more amazed I was. Bees, it turns out, serve as a kind of evolutionary model for human tribal behavior. If natural selection affirms the power of selfishness, seeing life as a zero-sum game — either I pass down my genes, or you do yours — bees live a life of sacrifice, subsumed for the good of the group.

In his book “The Happiness Hypothesis,” Jonathan Haidt posits that humans have coevolved according to both our culture and our genetics. Genetically, we are predisposed to compete, to win out against others at all cost — survival of the fittest. But we are also hive animals who benefit by developing and following rules and laws that enable our group to succeed.

Haidt (and others) view religion itself as a set of rules that re-create hive behavior. We increase our chances for survival — and for happiness — by being part of a group. Morality and religion are intertwined. Future generations can no more reinvent morality from scratch than a single bee can re-create a hive.

“When opponents of evolution object that human beings are not mere apes, they are correct,” Haidt writes. “We are also part bee.”

Of course, a tribe like ours is not exactly a hive. It isn’t even always a tribe. We remain individuals, freer than bees to strike out on our own. But here’s the lesson the bee book taught me: It is only in the hive that we, as individuals, can thrive.

As I read my secret book, I wondered if that is one reason that honey is the symbol of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins tonight. We Jews don’t say “Happy New Year” to one another. We don’t even say just “Good New Year.” We say, “Shanah tovah u’metukah” — a happy and sweet year.

The idea of honey, of the hive, is built into our wishes: Goodness is individual, sweetness comes from community. That’s why even the least practicing Jews find themselves drawn to synagogue on the High Holy Days. Maybe they don’t need to go to shul to know right from wrong, to feel a part of something larger than themselves, to experience the Mysterious. But how will their children know? How about their grandchildren? Individuals come and go — the hive remains.

Not long ago, just before I was about to have the bee talk with my wife, I noticed something unusual in the backyard: bees.

Dozens of them were crawling over the yellow pumpkin blossoms, buzzing back and forth to the goat pen. I followed their path to the round compost bin. At night (when bees sleep, too), I lifted the lid and peered inside: The bees had colonized the bin. And though I wouldn’t get honey from it, at least I’d provided the bees with a home, of sorts. 

I filed the book on my shelf, let the bees do their thing on their own, and never told my wife about any of it. The last thing I wanted to do, I realized, was disturb the hive.

Shanah tovah u’metukah.

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