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ISRAEL: Bee-rating in the land of milk and honey

She isn't your standard beauty queen. With five eyes and six legs, she isn't going to bring world peace or save the whales, but the winner of the annual bee beauty pageant held at the Israeli boutique honey farm Dvorat Ha'Tavor is sweet. Her name's #7 and it might just be her honey that Jews in Israel and abroad will be eating with apples on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, in a few weeks, in keeping with the holiday tradition to promise a sweet year ahead.  Bee7malka_3

Queenbee Driving by fields or just walking through orchards and groves throughout the country, you can see the unassuming white cabinet-like stacks that are among some 90,000 hives kept by Israeli beekeepers. This means honey, and also money.

Many of the country's honey farms are open to the public, offering educational programs and family activities, and the honey harvesting season happily coincides with the summer vacation and high holidays, which makes seasonal honey festivals a popular attraction. The industry is constantly reinventing itself, developing new flavors and even colors. Honey gift baskets are a common holiday present among Israelis, who consume 3,600 tons of honey a year.

But there are problems, too. Many Israeli farmers suffer from agricultural thefts, targeting anything from livestock to pipelines -- and beehives. Hives are small, often remote and unguarded, and hundreds are stolen every year, in many cases taken to the Palestinian territories. Beekeepers complain of lax enforcement and ridiculously low fines for apprehended thieves.

In other parts of the country, recurring agricultural theft has caused friction between Jews and Arabs too. Last year, Shai Dromi shot dead a burglar breaking into his farm, which had suffered repeated burglaries. The burglar was a Bedouin. Dromi himself is standing trial but the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has since passed the "Dromi law," which is equivalent to the U.S. "castle" doctrine and absolves a person of criminal responsibility for actions deemed immediately and explicitly necessary to prevent an intruder from breaking into his or her home and committing a crime. The law extends the definition of home to include enclosed farming property.

And there's also the name thing. Israeli apiarists appealed to the Hebrew Language Academy several years ago, asking to find a new word for the profession since the existing word, kavran, (from kaveret, hive), sounds like the Hebrew word for undertaker. They finally gave up and issued a unilateral declaration changing it to dvorai (from dvora, bee) instead.

Winnerbee The nutritional, medicinal and cosmetic properties of honey have been known since ancient times, and archaeological findings in Israel  show that bees were locally domesticated more than 3,000 years ago. Around the world, bees are mysteriously disappearing and "colony collapse disorder is potentially devastating to crops that depend on bees for pollination.

The phenomenon is worrisome in Israel, too, where numbers of bees are beginning to dwindle. This is why, says Malka Ben Zeev from Dvorat Ha'Tavor, "We treat our bees like queens the whole year round."

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Photos: Top right, Malka Ben Zeev inspects #7. Top left, #7 enjoys her prize, concentrated nectar, before being set free. Bottom, the bee that beat 800 other contestants.Credits: Dvorat Ha'Tavor.

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