(New York Jewish Week) — Five years ago, Gadi Peleg, the owner and founder of Breads Bakery — an Israeli-style bakery with roots in Tel Aviv and stores around Manhattan — began to sell New York City-harvested honey in his stores in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah. It was an instant hit.
All the products at Breads (other than soft drinks) are prepared in-house, and it made sense to Peleg that the honey be proprietary, too. So Peleg turned to Andrew Coté, a fourth-generation beekeeper and owner of Andrew’s Honey, who has more than 100 hives around the city.
“Honey from the city is cleaner than honey from the countryside,” Coté, who is Jewish, told the New York Jewish Week. “Very few to no pesticides are sprayed in Manhattan.”
Beekeeping became legal in New York City in 2010, at which time 42 bee owners were registered. According to the New York City Health Department, there are currently 121 beekeepers registered with the city. Tom Wilk, New York City director of the Empire State Honey Producers Associations, estimates that there are probably twice that amount. “People are afraid of letting the government know what they are doing,” he said.
Interest in beekeeping continues to grow, and there are classes on beekeeping throughout the city. Brooklyn Grange, a leading rooftop farming business, holds a Beekeeping 101 class at its Brooklyn Navy Yard location. In Astoria, Queens, Nick and Ashley Hoefly, will soon open the city’s only dedicated honey shop, The Honey House at Astor Apiaries where you can try honey, take classes in beekeeping, gardening and cooking.
September is a busy month for New York City’s beekeepers. Rosh Hashanah, and its custom to put honey on the holiday table, jacks up demand — and demand in a city with 1.6 million Jews is steep. What’s more, September is a big harvesting month and, for the last 13 years, the Queens Beekeepers Guild has hosted a honey festival on the second Saturday in September on the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach.
Coté, founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association and the author of a book about urban beekeeping, is perhaps the best known of the beekeepers spread across the five boroughs. He and Peleg first became acquainted at the Union Square Greenmarket, where Coté sells his wares. The four-day-a-week market is just down the block from Breads’ original Manhattan location on West 16th Street. It was a win-win situation for the two businessmen: The beekeeper gained an additional revenue stream while the baker acquired an exclusive source of honey from a producer who’s landed on “best” lists.
Of Coté’s dozens of hives, four of them are earmarked for Breads. They are located on the roof of a building at 19th Street and Broadway.
“When people hear the honey comes from hives a few blocks away, they react with disbelief,” said Samantha Mele, logistics manager at Breads Bakery. She is referred to as its “Queen Bee” — both because of her focus on details and her involvement in the honey project. “Longtime customers will pre-order since they know we sell out.”
“We first prioritize jarring the honey,” Peleg said. “People really enjoy it obviously with apples and on our challah bread.” He added that Breads sells “ many, many hundreds of jars” of the stuff each fall.
Breads also uses honey — local, if available after jarring, as well as honey sourced elsewhere — in a variety of Rosh Hashanah baked goods, including honey cake, medovik (a caramelized biscuit layer cake made with buckwheat honey), honey rugelach and safta cake (a honey, cinnamon and apple cake).
The amount of honey harvested from Breads’ four hives changes year to year, and the flavor — which depends on where the bees collected their pollen, and when the honey was harvested from the hives — varies, too.
“Generally the earlier honey [of the season] is lighter and the later honey is darker,” Coté said. “That’s because of what is in bloom at different times of the year. The early harvest [in New York] is full of pollen from linden trees.” Pollen from these European lindens, according to the Central Park Conservancy, makes a delicately flavored honey.
Beekeeping is a full-time job for some New Yorkers, like Coté, who grew up keeping bees in Quebec with a Catholic and Native American father and a Jewish mother. “My mother’s family was thrilled to have beekeepers in the family, since it meant a relatively endless supply of fresh pure honey, for all occasions, but most especially for Rosh Hashanah,” he said.
For other urban beekeepers, it’s “a hobby that pays its own way,” according to part-time beekeeper Menachem Husarsky of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.
Husarsky began raising honey bees three years ago, at his wife’s request. She, along with their daughter, suffers from seasonal allergies, and many believe that ingesting locally sourced honey helps people build immunity to their pollen. (Alas, the medical community is divided on this.)
“Menachem took the idea and ran with it,” said Malka Husarsky, Menachem’s wife, who recalled her own mother eating local honey to help with her allergies.
Within a year, the family’s COVID-era hobby grew into a small business. In 2021, they began to sell their honey, The Birds and the Bees Brooklyn. Most of the sales are via Facebook, to the local communities of Ditmas Park and Kensington, but they also sell to their fellow Orthodox neighbors at their upstate home at Vacation Village in Monticello, New York.
So far, this year, the Husarskys have harvested 170 pounds of honey from four hives located in the modest side yard of their Brooklyn home. This season’s flavors are rare: “We have apple, cherry and peach trees on our property,” Husarsky said. “We have Meyer lemon and clementine trees in pots. A lot of our neighbors in the area grow mint and someone was growing hot peppers.”
By the end of this season, they expect to extract a total of 375 pounds of honey, which they sell for between $2 to $3 an ounce (the peach honey, which has a more limited supply, goes for $3 an ounce).
Sales, said Husarsky, “kick up in September around Rosh Hashanah,” and they usually sell out.
And at the Husarsky family’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah, “We intend, of course, to dip our apples in our honey,” said Menachem Husarsky. “We have apple trees on both our properties with apples ready for Rosh Hashanah.”
“We’re excited and blessed to spend the holiday with family,” Malka Husarsky added. “ It will be really special to have our family around the table, filled with items from Hashem and our urban farm.”
And there may be Jewish lessons to be learned from beekeeping, too. According to Rabbi Eitan Webb, director of the Chabad House at Princeton University: “Honey bees all work together in unity. They know that time is short and there is so much to do, and they run around as fast as they can, so they can create something good.”
“Bees make honey, but they also sting when they are threatened,” he added. The late Chabad rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “suggests that, like bees, our primary role is to do mitzvahs, bringing sweetness to the world. Though we have the power to sting, we should reserve it for sparing use and only in defense of our treasure: Judaism.”
At Breads, the crew there has been preparing for Rosh Hashanah — which begins on the evening of Friday, Sept. 15 — since March. “We realize what a huge responsibility it is to ensure that people can celebrate the holiday,” Peleg said. “We take that responsibility very, very seriously.”
As for Coté, he and his family celebrate Rosh Hashanah by having — you guessed it — a honey-based feast. First, there is honey cake. “Our honey cake is always made with buckwheat honey for a much richer and more satisfying (in my opinion) honey cake,” Cote wrote to the New York Jewish Week.
Then, there is the honey and apple tasting. “Since I work at a farmers’ market, I always command a wide spread of different apples,” he said. “These are sliced and sorted and dipped in an almost equally diverse selection of honey.”