Congregation Rodeph Shalom Abuzz With Rooftop Bees

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Arthur LaBan and Don Shump use smoke to calm bees
From left: Arthur LaBan and Don Shump use smoke to calm bees on the roof of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. (Photo by Craig LaBan)

While most people head to a supermarket for their Rosh Hashanah honey, one congregation in Philadelphia goes directly to the source.

The rooftop of Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street is home to hives with thousands of bees. Each year, the congregation collects and sells the honey to its members for the High Holidays.

The tradition started about five years ago when Arthur LaBan was coming up with potential Bar Mitzvah projects with his father Craig, the restaurant critic and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Arthur LaBan had read an article in The New Yorker on the declining bee population. Given his passion for protecting the environment, he started talking about urban beekeeping.

The LaBans reached out to Don Shump, a professional beekeeper and owner of Philadelphia Bee Co., and discussed turning the synagogue’s roof into an apiary. Arthur LaBan raised about $1,000 from friends and family to fund the creation of two Langstroth hives, comprised of rectangular boxes with removable frames for the bees to build combs inside. Each hive is home to approximately 60,000 European honey bees.

Today, there are four such hives on the roof for a total of about 250,000 bees.

The honey is typically harvested twice a year; about 80 pounds of honey gets collected in each batch. This year, the synagogue will have enough for about 140 eight-ounce bottles for sale to its members. Each sells for $15. Craig LaBan said the community has come to support the bees — and his son along with them.

bottles of Holy Honey
Eight-ounce bottles of honey from Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Photo courtesy of Craig LaBan)

“It’s amazing to see how enthusiastic people are about this project. They look forward to it every year,” Craig LaBan said. “It’s really had a lasting impact for Arthur and the community that surrounds him.”

Shump said most people would never know of Rodeph Shalom’s hives unless told, as the bees tend to keep to themselves. Many organizations like churches, breweries and candy shops have gotten into the bee game in recent years. While Rodeph Shalom isn’t the first synagogue to keep bees, Shump said it was the only one in the region he knew of.

The bees travel in up to a three-mile radius to collect pollen and nectar from trees and flowers. The variety and seasonal change of nearby plants leads to a unique product, with hives in different areas producing honey of varying color and flavor. Shump said this is especially true of hives in Philadelphia.

“The honey we get in the city is interesting. Part of that is there’s a mix of trees and ground plants that bees are able to access here,” Shump said. “We’ve had 200 years of botanical awesomeness going on with people bringing in different kinds of plants and different trees. The honey changes year to year, but it’s always good.”

Arthur LaBan, now 17, said he learned a lot from the project and hopes it shows people the value of bees in the environment. Donning a white beekeeping suit, he’s worked with Shump to collect the honey from the rooftop. He said the bees are mostly harmless unless they feel threatened. On a few occasions they have darted at his head aggressively, but he has yet to be stung.

“I feel there’s this stigma to bees,” Arthur LaBan said. “They sting, people are scared of them, but they play an important part in the ecosystem. People talk about them in school, but this really brought it to light.”

Despite pursing beekeeping years ago as a Bar Mitzvah project, Arthur LaBan’s passion for the environment and bees has remained. He recently helped establish a beekeeping club at his school that just received permission to put bees on the school’s roof. He hopes by winter the shared facility of Science Leadership Academy and Benjamin Franklin High School will be home to hives of its own.

For Shump, he has enjoyed collaborating with Arthur LaBan and Rodeph Shalom, adding that the congregation has appreciated his work.

“The community aspect I really enjoy,” Shump said. “Having people ask about when the honey comes in — that’s been a wonderful part of it. It makes me glad that I’m involved.”

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