By Leiba Chaya David
Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, was designated in the Talmud to mark the flowering and the renewal of life that trees symbolize in the lifecycle. In Israel, where the early winter rains are mostly over by February and the tree sap has risen, Tu B’Shvat heralds the coming of the spring season. While many in the Diaspora may still be blanketed under snow or still facing the winter, Israelis observe Tu B’Shvat with festive tree planting celebrations in the newly green hills and valleys.
The custom of planting trees on Tu BiShvat began in 1892, when educator and historian Ze’ev Yavetz marked the founding of the new Israeli community of Zikhron Ya’akov with a communal tree planting. A decade later, the Israeli Teachers’ Union and Jewish National Fund (JNF) formalized the practice, making Tu B’Shvat tree-planting an annual tradition.
By 2016, with the support of Jews worldwide, JNF had planted over 250 million trees—primarily rapid-growing conifers—throughout Israel, creating lush belts of green forests. These green spaces are a fixture of the modern Israeli landscape, providing shade, recreational spaces, commemorative monuments, and wildlife habitats.
Busloads of Israeli children still travel to the countryside every year on Tu B’Shvat to plant saplings in honor of the arboreal new year. Yet, today, they are unlikely to plant the iconic conifer. Instead, JNF nurseries are handing out “pollinator protectors,” nectar-providing species that are turning Tu B’Shvat into a time to celebrate not only trees, but also bees.
Honeybees are a critical element of Israel’s forests and meadows, and the primary pollinators of ecosystems across the globe. Wild and domestic honeybees are responsible for some 80% of all pollination in the world, including 70 out of the top 100 human food crops. Bees also support the growth of flowers and wild plants essential for natural food chains.
In recent years, the international honeybee population has plummeted drastically, posing a threat to both natural biodiversity and human food security. Scientists attribute the bees’ plight— known as “bee colony collapse”— to a range of causes, including drought, habitat destruction, monoculture farming, and pesticide use. In the U.S., beekeepers have reported a 44% loss of honeybee colonies just between 2015 and 2016. One wild bee, a critical pollinator, was even recently placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As the rest of the world frets about a looming agricultural crisis due to bee loss, Israel has managed to keep its bee population in good health. In response to beekeepers’ and ecologists’ concerns about the impact of intensive urban development and agricultural industrialization on Israel’s bees, JNF and the Israeli Honey Council, the national body that monitors honey production, partnered to plant 1.5 million nectar-providing trees and bushes. Since its implementation in 2012, the project has overseen the planting of hundreds of thousands of bee-attracting plants and trees annually. These “mega-producers” flower year round, offering bees a continual food source and ensuring their health and pollinating ability. They include several species of small eucalyptus varieties from Australia, species native to Israel such as carob and jujube trees, and a variety of flowering plants from arid climates around the world.
“We now have enough forests in Israel, and can dedicate our tree planting and urban landscaping to perpetuating native species and introducing other species that have benefits to the people and wildlife living here,” said Israeli forester Aviv Esienband of JNF’s evolving afforestation strategies. To assist in this project, Eisenband and his colleagues collect nectar-producing plants and trees from around the world and attempt to acclimate them at trial sites throughout the country. If the plant does well, Eisenband explains, its seeds will be distributed to nurseries throughout Israel. From there, saplings make their way to Tu B’Shvat events, forest rehabilitation programs, municipal landscaping projects, and other planting operations.
JNF is sharing its success, hosting conferences, and conducting tours about its strategy of introducing nectar-producing species in Israel. A free guidebook with pictures and short descriptions of the hundreds of species of nectarous plants is also made available to Israeli beekeepers and farmers. Due to requests from farmers around the world, the book has also recently been translated into English.
For the Jewish mystics of the 16th century, trees symbolized the Tree of Life, which carries divine goodness and blessings into the world. In modern Israel, JNF is bringing this esoteric Tu B’Shvat concept down to earth. With every “pollinator protector” planted this Tu B’Shvat, children and youth will be making the world a healthier place by increasing Israel’s biodiversity and providing habitat and food for the country’s precious honeybees.