From Trees to Bees: How Apples and Honey Arrive on the Plate

On the Rodeph Shalom rooftop apiary, Arthur LaBan and Don Shump wear bee suits and pump smoke on a hive.
Arthur LaBan and Don Shump tend to the Holy Honey hives at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in the apiary’s early days. | Photo by Craig LaBan

At an ACME or Giant or Wegmans, a bear-shaped squeeze bottle of honey can cost about $5; an apple is about a buck. The drive or walk to the grocery store might be 15 minutes, and it takes even less time to chop the apple and dunk it in the viscous honey.

Fulfilling the tradition of eating apples and honey for the new year is a simple affair on the surface. But beyond the trip to the grocery store and the kitchen prep time, there are thousands of hours that have gone into the creation of the holiday-defining dish. 

“We’re kind of used to just having food available … We need something, we go out and buy it,” said Don Shump, owner of the Philadelphia Bee Co. “We don’t really think about how much effort goes into that.”

Shump is the adviser for Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s Holy Honey apiary where he, along with Penn State University student Arthur LaBan, who helped start the hives as part of his bar mitzvah project years ago, care for the bees seasonally. This year, the apiary is predicted to produce about 100-170 seven-ounce jars of honey, most of which will be sold to Rodeph Shalom and Jewish community members.

Of course, Shump and LaBan aren’t the only ones Holy Honey patrons should be thanking for their High Holiday fare. The apiary consists of anywhere between two to 10 hives, with about 60,000 bees per hive. With each worker bee — having a lifespan of just six weeks — producing about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime, it would be an understatement to say that teamwork makes the dream work.

Rodeph Shalom’s bees pollinate wildflowers within about a two-mile radius of the synagogue, mostly along the Schuylkill River bank. Scout bees will explore the area and return to the hive and perform a waggle dance to the rest of the hive — a figure-eight motion with a straight line down in the middle. The direction of the straight line is the direction the bees should travel to the pollen source in relation to the sun. The length of the dance correlates to the distance the bees should travel.

“For every second that they dance, that’s about a kilometer,” Shump said.

The static charge generated by the bees’ flight results in pollen getting stuck to the bee’s body, which is pushed to their back legs by combs on their front legs. They suck up nectar through a proboscis, a straw-shaped tongue.

When they return to their hives, the worker bees dispense the nectar, about 25-95% water, into the vertical comb and beat their wings, drawing out moisture until the resulting honey is less than 18% water.

“At that point, honey gets hygroscopic, starved of water. And so any bacteria that touches it, the honey rips the water out of the bacteria and kills it,” Shump said. “That’s why honey stays good forever.”

An apple tree with fruit is photographed in front of the setting sun.
Linvilla Orchards in Media produces 200-800 bushels of apples per its 25 acres, with each bushel containing more than 100 apples. | Courtesy of Linvilla Orchards

While local food can be defined as anything within a 100-mile radius, Shump said, the hyperlocal honey is not only a worthy product, a medium amber color, but also an opportunity for Shump to have greater respect for his food.

For LaBan, who uses the honey from the Holy Honey hives for his own Rosh Hashanah celebrations, his connection with his Judaism grows a little
sweeter too.

“Being able to just kind of explore my heritage through that means a lot to me as well,” LaBan said. “It really feels like I can connect with my culture a little bit more.”

Honey is only one part of the quintessential new year snack, however. With apple season in its prime, plucking the fruit from the tree has become an accessible way for people to see their food’s origins.

At Linvilla Orchards in Media, there are about 25 acres of apple trees, with each acre yielding 200-800 bushels of apples, about 125 apples per bushel, according to farm manager Norm Schultz.

Each apple tree, about 10-15 feet tall, is a dwarf tree with a weak root system, which makes the trees easier to pick for the amateur orchard visitor. Each sapling will begin fruiting about 2-3 years after it’s planted, which means the orchard is preparing for harvests years in advance.

Even beyond the orchard, work to construct the perfect apple can take place in the lab. Scientists developed the Honeycrisp apple, known for its juiciness, sweetness and crunch, 20 years ago. In the 1980s and ’90s, developing apple varieties was focused on color and shelf life, not flavor and texture. The Honeycrisp, the most popular apple variety, defies those old standards for a good apple.

“The Honeycrisp is quite unique because its cells hold more liquid than any other varieties,” Schultz said. “That’s why the Honeycrisp is so juicy.”

Linvilla also offers Crimson Crisp and Evercrisp apples, which will only be on the trees available to harvest for the next month. The transience of the apple-picking experience, which coincides around the time of Rosh Hashanah, is part of what makes the activity appealing.

“It’s great to connect where your food comes from … And it just really connects you to the land,” Schultz said.

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