When Rabbi Danny Senter ambles into the backyard of his Teaneck, New Jersey, home he comes face to face with thousands of buzzing bees.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
The hobbyist beekeeper maintains a collection of 20 beehives between the four he keeps in his backyard and those he maintains for others in and around New York and New Jersey.
“I’ve always been fascinated with nature,” said Senter, a consummate outdoorsman who also raises chickens and goats and keeps a vegetable garden.
Each hive contains over 100,000 bees, much to Senter’s delight, despite a bee allergy that makes him “blow up like an elephant” if he’s stung. Nevertheless, he zealously carries on with his avocation.
Rabbi Danny Senter.
Fortunately, the bees rarely inject him with their venom. “Your actions at the beehive have to be calm and deliberate,” he said, adding that bees don’t want to sting because then they will die. Clad from head to toe in a beekeeper’s white suit, which bears a resemblance to a hazmat outfit, Senter doesn’t flinch as a cloud of the stinging insects fly about his face, which is covered by a protective veiled hat.
With honey harvesting season in full swing, it’s a busy time for Senter, who doubled his honey production this year. As Jews around the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the beekeeper’s job takes on a higher significance.
“It’s no coincidence that the apple and honey, which Jews traditionally eat on Rosh Hashanah (to symbolize a sweet new year) are harvested this time of year,” Senter said as he pried open the top of one of his hives to display a honeycomb dripping with thick liquid gold.
Senter isn’t alone in his quirky passion. Nationwide, many others have slipped on the beekeeper’s suit in order to try their hand at the apiarian pastime.
In the past nine years, the number of backyard beepers around the country has increased due to the publicity surrounding the bee colony collapse disorder, said Janet Katz, president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. “When it was reported that huge numbers of honey bees had died, a lot of people felt like they wanted to do something to save the bees,” she said. Katz, who has several hives of her home in her Chester, New Jersey, backyard, estimates that there are 3,000 beekeepers in New Jersey.
Raymond Arons of Teaneck, a retired rocket scientist who studied the beekeeping craft under Senter two years ago, now cares for three hives in his backyard. He admits that it’s an expensive hobby — he spent $5,000 in equipment alone — but he says it is awe inspiring.
“I love that bees are the most amazing creatures on earth,” he said. “Each one is born with a job that is predetermined in their DNA. There’s only one Queen in a hive. Then there are drones and worker bees. Each has their own job and they all know where to go.”
The job of the drone is to impregnate the queen, who lays up to 1,000 bee eggs a day. The worker bees have a variety of roles, some in the hive and others outside: Some fly up to three miles away to collect nectar and pollen for making honey. Others build comb and make the honey. The bees work throughout the spring and summer to make enough honey — their food — to sustain them through winter. A hive in New Jersey must produce 80 pounds of honey to get through winter. Any surplus honey can be harvested by the beekeeper, Arons said.
“It’s the ultimate in socialism, how everyone is doing everything for the purpose of surviving the harvest,” said Arons. “Marx would love these guys.”
Senter discovered beekeeping about six years ago, when he got a call from a friend who needed help at his chicken farm, and he spied what appeared to be stacked wooden boxes. His friend explained that they were beehives.
“I was always trying to figure out how things work,” said Senter, who is also a restorer of classic cars, a clockmaker, magician and baseball umpire — when he’s not working at his day job as a rabbinic administrator at the KOF-K Kosher Certification Agency.
He spent several months reading up on the art of beekeeping. Soon he had his own hive. Three years ago he founded and his bee collection and reputation soon grew. Suddenly he was receiving calls from homeowners and local police departments when bee hives or swarms needed to be removed from the siding of a home, the top of a police car or a McDonald’s restaurant sign. (Honey bees are protected from extermination by federal and state law.) Senter is able to transfer the beehive and its bees safely to another location. His penchant for bee rescue evolved, and he now also sells his honey at a farmer’s market in Teaneck and online.
The flavor of a particular honey is indicative of the region’s flowers, which give every season’s harvest a local and unique taste, Senter said. He sells plain unfiltered, unpasteurized honey, as well as creamed honey, which is smoother and made with pulverized honey crystals and comes in flavors such as cocoa, cinnamon and vanilla.
“Beekeeping is a craft that takes you away,” said Senter, as he delicately dipped his finger into a glob of honey that he scooped directly from the hive onto a plate and stuck it into his mouth. “When you put on that suit, the world totally disappears.”
Deena Yellin is a newspaper reporter in New Jersey whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday and The Jerusalem Post.