By Rabbi Dovid Heber, Star-K Kashrus Administrator
For hundreds of years, the Jewish custom has been to begin Rosh Hashana with an apple dipped in honey as a symbol for a sweet new year. It is quite interesting that most honey in the United States is produced by the bees and collected by beekeepers in the summer – just in time to serve on the Yom Tov table.
Even older than this custom is the question regarding the kosher status of honey. Many of us are familiar with the famous halacha that states that derivatives of non-kosher species are not kosher.1 This would include camel’s milk or ostrich eggs. Since a bee is a non-kosher species, how is honey, which comes from a bee, permissible? Furthermore, if honey is kosher, are all products manufactured by the bee, such as royal jelly, beeswax, bee venom, and propolis (all described below) also kosher?
A brief entomological review of this remarkable insect is necessary in order to answer these questions: Bees suck nectar from flowers with their proboscis (mouth). The nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac where enzymes from the saliva break down the nectar into honey. The nectar is never “digested,” it is only transformed into honey by the saliva. Upon the bee’s return to the hive, the honey is regurgitated, dried, and placed into the honeycomb. Beekeepers then extract millions of drops of honey from the cavities of the honeycomb by using a machine that applies centrifugal force to the comb.
Why Is Honey a Kosher Product?
The Gemara2 explains that honey is kosher as it is not a secretion from the bee; the bee functions only as a carrier and facilitator.3 Honey is kosher nectar, which enters the honey sac, is transformed into honey, and placed into the honeycomb retaining its kosher status throughout the “transformation.”
The second opinion in the Gemara permits honey because of a g’zairas hakasuv, a deduction from a passuk.4 Therefore, 100% pure honey, whether from Montana, North Dakota, or any state or country, is kosher and does not require a hechsher.
Nevertheless, there are two important issues one must bear in mind when purchasing honey. Honey is usually described by the flower from which the bees draw the nectar. The most popular variety of honey, Clover Honey, is honey that the bees have processed from the nectar of the clover leaf. Orange Honey is nectar that originates from orange groves, where the bees have sucked the nectar from orange bushes and transformed it into honey. However, there are some companies who flavor their honey with an orange flavor and call it “orange honey.” This orange flavored honey would require a hechsher as flavors can be composed of various non-kosher ingredients. One should always check the label carefully to verify that the product is 100% pure honey with no flavors added.
The second issue relates to the use of pure honey on Pesach. Potentially, honey can be adulterated with additives such as corn syrup. Corn syrup, a yotzei min hakitniyos sweetener, is derived from corn, a legume, and may not be used on Pesach. For example, soda companies must substitute this sweetener with liquid sugar when producing Kosher for Passover soda. Some honey producers have been found to mix the inexpensive corn syrup into honey and illegally label and sell it as “pure honey,” with no mention of this almost undetectable “filler.” Although this practice is the exception, one should, nevertheless, only purchase pure honey for Pesach, with a reliable Pesachdik hechsher. This problem does not impact the use of honey during the rest of the year.
Propolis – Another important product of the bee is propolis. Bees collect this material from the sap of a tree, and carry it in their proboscis. In its pure state, propolis is kosher and is used as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal remedy, polishing agent, and preservative. However, companies commonly process the propolis with other ingredients such as alcohol. Therefore, such a product would require a reliable hechsher.
Bee Pollen – Bees have brushes on their legs which collect the pollen from the flowers. The pollen is brushed toward the back of the bee and is pressed into baskets found on their legs. The bees add traces of saliva and nectar to make a more effective “press,” because pollen is naturally dusty and requires a binding agent. This popular health food product is kosher.
Royal Jelly – The most important bee in the hive is the “Queen Bee,” who attains her “royal” status by her constant extra nutritious diet of royal jelly. What is Royal Jelly? This product is a secretion from the hypharyngeal and mandibular glands located in the head of the bee. It is rich in protein, vitamins, fatty acids, and amino acids, and is available in health food stores. It is also a common ingredient in various health food products and remedies. Because it is a yotzei min hatamei, an actual product that is secreted from the bee, royal jelly should be considered non-kosher.5
Apis Mellifica – This homeopathic remedy is derived from the body of the honeybee and is not kosher. However, as in most homeopathic remedies, the active ingredient is less than 1/60 and is therefore batel b’shishim.6 If the inactive ingredients are kosher, and the honeybee is batel, this product would be halachically permissible to take.
Bee Venom – This product is synthesized in the venom glands of the bee and is released when a bee stings. Using a machine, bee venom is collected from bees and is used as an anti-inflammatory agent or for the treatment of arthritis. It is non-kosher7 and may only be taken orally if it is batel b’shishim in kosher inactive ingredients. It may be used topically or by injection even if the venom is not batel.
Beeswax – Used to form the honeycomb in the hive, beeswax is secreted from wax glands located on the underside of the abdomen. The cells of the honeycomb are where bees grow from larva into mature bees. They also store not only honey, but various other products. Beeswax is sold both pure and with honey inside.
In its original state, beeswax is used in non-food grade applications, since the human body cannot adequately digest this material. It is commonly used in candles, lipstick, shoe and floor polish, and buffing wax for surfboards. Since it is not a “ma’achal,” a “food,” its status as a yotzei min hatamei does not cause it to be non-kosher.8 Therefore, beeswax is considered kosher, provided that no non-kosher solvents are used, and it contains no non-kosher additives.
Although pure beeswax is generally not eaten, its kosher status is important for various reasons. Beeswax may be extracted to create a chemical used in the flavor industry. This extract is a kosher chemical (provided that all additives and solvents are approved), since the actual beeswax is not a food. It is even permissible for one to chew beeswax for its pollen content, or swallow it, with or without the honey mixed in.
The bee’s ability to produce such a wide spectrum of ingredients used in both health food and snack food is quite fascinating. Appreciating these niflaos haBorei, wonders of our Creator, is key to understanding the kashrus ramifications.
1. Hayotzei min hatamei tamei.
2. Bechoros 7b
3. Mipnei shemachnisos ligufan v’ain mimatzvos osan migufan.
4. Vayikra 11:21 Ach es zeh…
5. See Tzitz Eliezer 11:59 who allows it.
6. This is true if the dilution is at least 2x (1:102) and higher, or at least 1c (1:100) and higher.
7. Since it is a yotzei min hatamei.
8. See Igros Moshe, Y.D. 2:24 – V’gam