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A beekeeper and restaurant rally to save a North Broad synagogue’s rooftop apiary

The nation’s distressed bee population suffered a 14% increase in mortality partly due to lack of access to apiaries.

Beekeeper Don Shump of the Philadelphia Bee Company surveys the wreckage of the Holy Honey hives atop Congregation Rodeph Shalom, which died due to lack of access during the COVID-19 crisis. This hive was infested with wax moths who left dead wax and cobwebs inside frames that once held golden honey.
Beekeeper Don Shump of the Philadelphia Bee Company surveys the wreckage of the Holy Honey hives atop Congregation Rodeph Shalom, which died due to lack of access during the COVID-19 crisis. This hive was infested with wax moths who left dead wax and cobwebs inside frames that once held golden honey.Read moreCraig LaBan

We prayed for a Rosh Hashanah miracle as we sweated beneath our protective veils. Could the bees still be alive?

The heat can radiate intensely off the rooftop of Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street in early September, when we come each year to harvest honey for the Jewish high holidays. But this year, of course, was like no other. With the congregation closed due to the pandemic, we hadn’t been able to access the hives since late 2019. And the air seemed hotter this day than ever as I pondered the promise I’d made to my son.

We’ll keep Holy Honey going while you’re away.

“It’s a 50-50 shot,” said beekeeper Don Shump hopefully as we climbed through a classroom window and crossed the roof to where the apiary awaited.

But Shump’s broad shoulders sank as we approached a tumble of blue and white boxes scattered in disarray.

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“Oh no ... this is depressing,” he said, picking up the lids and hives that had been blown over, peering into the darkness inside where frames of comb would normally glow golden with honey treasure. They had instead been ravaged by mites. “Robber bees” from competing hives picked over the remains. Wax moths had covered every surface with thick black webs that turned these once-buzzing colonies into haunted hives — eerily silent.

“Another victim of the pandemic,” groaned Shump, co-owner of the Philadelphia Bee Co., which manages over 100 hives in the region. This could have been avoided had we been able to visit and treat the hives in April, he said, noting the nation’s already distressed bee population had suffered a 14% increase in mortality due in part to similar circumstances of lack of access. “But I take this one personally.”

Little did I know to what extent Shump took it to heart, and the gift he would soon make.

I’d been so focused on my own disappointment. My son Arthur created the Holy Honey initiative six years ago when, as a 12-year-old, he fund-raised, helped build the hives and, with Shump’s help, launched the apiary for his bar mitzvah project to aid the plight of local bees and supply congregants with something special for the Rosh Hashanah ritual of dipping apples into honey to symbolize a sweet new year. It had become a self-sustaining fixture at the synagogue over the years, producing up to 150 half-pound jars of honey each fall.

“Holy Honey exemplifies our congregation’s vision to create profound connections," says Rodeph Shalom Rabbi Eli Freedman, who’s proudly given jars as interfaith gifts to colleagues as far away as Abu Dhabi. “Bees, as an integral part of our ecosystem, remind us of the interconnectedness of all things.”

While it began with Arthur’s vision, jarring the honey became a cherished ritual each year shared by my whole family. But with him now away for the first time as a freshman at Penn State, where he’s still pursuing his passion for environmental causes, I couldn’t help but see this devastation and feel as if I’d failed him in some way. My wife and I had been empty nesters for only one week, and now my son’s hives were empty, too!

Did this mean everyone would go back to their generic supermarket honey bears? Probably. And what of the 250 holiday cakes that the pastry chef at K’Far, Katreena Kanney, had hoped to bake with Holy Honey for this year’s holiday meals? (That cause, it turns out, was not completely lost.)

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Of course, this was a selfish view. A working hive is far greater than any individual. And if bees teach us anything, it is their power as a community of thousands — miraculously productive when working in intuitive harmony yet startlingly fragile when faced with a crisis of devastating disease.

“Beekeepers understand pandemics because parasitic mites are a global issue," says Shump, referring to the scourge of Varroa destructor mites that have been deadly to bee populations worldwide. It’s a problem only accelerated by the annual migration of bee colonies across the country to pollinate industrial crops, where they commingle with other bees before returning home to various points across the nation. “It’s like when all the kids head down to the Shore. It’s a good way to spread things."

Wrap the bees' pandemic inside the struggles of our own global health catastrophe, and you have “the worst of the worst cases for bees,” Shump says.

Ironically, some circumstances resulting from the pandemic — paired with exceptional human kindness — have also created an opportunity for Holy Honey to be reborn.

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Shump’s eight-year-old business, which he runs with wife Amanda Pfeffer, has experienced a fortuitous tumult during the coronavirus crisis. They lost dozens of educational school visits and watched the closure of retail store partners, leaving them with surplus honey. The bee removal side of their business, however, has buzzed at a record pace, with unseasonable early swarms (hello, climate change!) and more removal calls from people working from home. The stinging-insect remediation business is booming.

Shump suddenly had an idea: He would donate four gallons of that extra honey (worth over $500) to the honey cakes at K’Far, whose owners, Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, would in turn make a charitable donation to Rodeph Shalom to help rebuild the hives next spring.

“What happened at the synagogue really bothered me, and so I felt inclined to pay forward my good fortune because I know it hasn’t been easy on houses of worship during this time,” says Shump, who was raised Catholic, but is nonpracticing. “I’m not Jewish, but this really connected me to that community. Harvesting honey for the High Holidays was something I got a lot of enjoyment out of.”

For Solomonov, who was a Rodeph Shalom member for many years, the arrangement was a perfect solution.

“Katreena wanted to make these cakes with local honey, and we’re part of the Jewish community so it made perfect sense to help rebuild those hives,” he said. “HaShem [God] definitely has Don’s back. Plus, that honey is ... delicious!”

Kanney could not agree more, describing the dark amber fall honey from Shump’s hives at Greensgrow Farms in Kensington (the nearest he could get to Rodeph Shalom) as having an almost barrel-aged complexity, with a spicy tingle reminiscent of candied ginger, an herbaceous zing, and a deep, earthy, vanilla savor. It’s so intense, she didn’t even need to caramelize the honey, as she’d done in test batches with more generic honeys as she refined the recipe. She locks one-third pound of honey power into the cake three ways, infusing its crumb, syrup, and glaze. All cakes were spoken for before they were even baked.

All that character, says Shump, is a direct imprint of the city’s ever-changing fall terroir, from goldenrod, asters, and knotweed to an intriguing new hint of smoky tang that can be attributed to an unlikely source — the dreaded spotted lanternfly — whose residual sugars have influenced the local nectar flow.

“Yet another example of how bees can take a blight and make something good of it,” says Shump.

As always, these amazing creatures are an inspiration.

“Like the Jewish people, bees are resilient,” says Freedman. “Although our hives were decimated this spring, we will not give up ... our hives will continue with the support of our community. The bees are a sign of tikvah [hope] in this difficult time.”

Arthur, who devoured the honey cake with his new friends when we brought it to State College on our visit during Rosh Hashanah, also approved. Holy Honey has a future! And a promise had been kept.