July 19, 2024
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July 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I wish I could tell you that donning protective outerwear and standing two feet away from an active hive full of bees was an activity that had always been on my bucket list, but truth be told I have never wanted to be anywhere near hundreds of stinging creatures that are best avoided when agitated. It’s not that I get hysterical when there are bees around, but I really do try to keep my distance when even one pops up in my line of vision. So then what was I doing on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of a Monsey field, watching hundreds of bees being served their weekly meal of sugar water? I promise you, it wasn’t a desire to get up close and personal with insects that can inflict sizable amounts of pain when they get an idea in their miniscule brains that you are a threat to their little winged bodies.

I should have realized that I was embarking on an adventure when a final email from Monsey beekeeper Zev Oster advised me to wear rainboots on my upcoming tour of his hives. Had I known that I was about to find myself zipped into a beekeeper’s jacket and praying that the bees didn’t notice that only half of me was safely inside a bee suit while the rest of me was fair game for their uber-pointy stingers, I probably would have stayed home. But there I was, facing dozens of colorfully painted boxes that just so happened to be home to thousands and thousands of bees. Two thoughts went through my head simultaneously: The first was that Oster’s wife was clearly a tzaddekes, if for no other reason than allowing her husband to keep bees. The second was the obvious question: Why on earth would anyone in their right mind spend their spare time caring for bees?

Oster’s journey into beekeeping began several years ago, when the Voyager Court resident heard on the news that honeybees were dying out. Intrigued by the idea of saving those little winged producers of honey, Oster decided to try his own hand at beekeeping. His first attempt was a lesson in and of itself as he discovered that bees are a seasonal item—orders have to be placed by January for delivery in April or May. Faced with the months-long wait, Oster, who works by day on 47th Street, turned to the internet to learn about bees. Looking for a local mentor, he hooked up with someone who was identified only as “Danny” but turned out to be Teaneck resident Rabbi Daniel Senter, rabbinical administrator of the Kof-K and also an avid beekeeper.

When the time was right, Oster placed an order for two boxes of bees, each of which came with a queen bee, approximately 10,000 honeybees and a $150 price tag. While he waited for spring to roll around, Oster began assembling his own hives at home, filling them with frames containing the wax foundations that would one day be used to store honey. When the bees finally arrived, Oster and Rabbi Senter (who ironically is allergic to honeybee stings) transferred the bees to their newly built hives—and then the fun really started.

In his first year, Oster’s goal was simple: maintain the hives and get them through the winter. Bees require extra nourishment in the springtime, when most of the flowers have yet to bloom, leaving beekeepers with two options: filling one or two frames of the hive with honey, or pouring sugar water into the hive. Once the flowers have opened, the bees get their meals outside the hives by foraging in the blooms, sucking nectar out of the flowers and storing it in what is known as their “honey stomach” before flying back to the hive once they have eaten their fill.

What happens next is both fascinating and bizarre. Bees pass the nectar from their stomachs back through their mouths and give it to other bees in the hive. These bees take turns chewing the nectar until it turns into honey, which is then stored in the cells of the wax foundation in the hive’s frames. The bees fan the honey with their wings to evaporate some of the moisture, giving the honey its signature sticky texture, before sealing the honey with beeswax in a honeycomb cell where it can stay fresh for centuries.

“We really babysat the hives that first year,” Oster told monsey.com. “You need to monitor them every seven to 10 days, and we took really good care of them.”

Oster had no intention of harvesting any honey in the first year, leaving any of the honey produced to tide the bees over during the long cold snap ahead.

“A hive needs 50 pounds of honey just to survive the winter,” noted Oster. “When the weather got cold, we wrapped both hives in tarpaper and made sure the bees were fed, and thankfully they both survived the winter.”

By the end of his second year, Oster was able to harvest 30 pounds of honey from his growing collection of hives, which now numbered 15. Some of the hives were home to bees that Oster had bought, while others were filled with swarms that Oster caught as part of his newly founded bee removal service, Rockland Bee Removal. But by the time winter hit, Oster had lost several of his hives, not to bears or local wildlife, but to other bees.

“Bees tend to rob each other when the weather starts turning colder because there isn’t much for them to forage anymore,” said Oster. “There are actually guard bees who try to protect the hive, but bees from stronger hives will try to take advantage of a weaker hive, often killing the guard and then taking the honey.”

Fast forward to this fall, and Oster’s collection had grown to 40 hives, several of which are housed in boxes painted by local artist Nechama Markowitz of Mailboxes of Monsey fame. In addition to a hive in a police station motif, Oster has one that looks like the Kosel and another sporting a Trump design, bearing the motto “Make America Sweet Again.” Having harvested more than 300 pounds of raw wildflower honey from his hives, Oster is selling his honey in local stores under the Rockland Honey label, which also bottles honey from other sources in a variety of flavors, including alfalfa, orange blossom and avocado. While Oster makes no promises about local honey’s ability to help allergy sufferers, he has customers who swear by it, saying that consuming pollens that are present in the air allows the body to build up an immunity to the allergens.

You don’t need to spend more than five minutes with Oster to see how much he enjoys his beekeeping hobby; the license plate on his SUV reads “ILUVBEES” and a decorative beehive with a bee is suspended from his mailbox. Still, keeping honeybees is not without challenges.

“We lost 30 percent of our hives last winter, even with treating them,” said Oster. “It can be challenging. You lose bees, you buy more, but in the end it is very rewarding.”

While honeybees are not aggressive, unlike the yellow jackets that seem to turn out in record numbers every Sukkot, Oster said he has been stung thousands of times. This is not surprising, considering just how much time he spends handling bees.

“I always get stung,” said Oster. “It hurts. You jump for a few minutes, but you get over it. I don’t even think about it anymore.”

Asked to describe the taste of his honey, Oster obliges with a spoonful of the sticky stuff. It’s paler than commercial honey, more flavorful and less sweet.

“People love it,” said Oster. “No matter how much we make, it’s never enough. The taste is just unbelievable.”

By Sandy Eller

 

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