Honey bee on a yellow Ohia Lehua blossom, at the Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui, Hawaii. Photo: Jeff Lee

Beekeeping challenges in Hawaii – A new series

Amanda and I have been in Hawaii for a week, ostensibly on holidays. But anyone who knows us also knows we couldn’t come here and not want to talk to the breeders, honey producers and researchers who are at the forefront of some of North America’s biggest changes in beekeeping.
To say that Hawaii is on that front line is no understatement. Just three years ago small hive beetle, a pest that has ripped through American bee yards, landed in Hawaii. It came a year or two after varroa made its presence here on some islands, bringing viruses into a tropical environment where, as one beekeeper told us, “virus is king.”
These are islands in a delicate ecological balance, where the effect of invasive pathogens and species have a magnified effect. Whether it’s the cane toad or ants, which were never native to Hawaii,  or the small hive beetle or bee viruses, the wrong thing introduced here can not only have an effect on Hawaii’s sensitive and diverse ecology but also seriously undermine its agricultural community as well.

Danielle Downey, Hawaii's first and only Department of Agriculture bee inspector.

Danielle Downey, Hawaii’s first and only Department of Agriculture bee inspector.

Over several days Amanda and I met with queen producers who shared with us their operations, honey producers who told us of the struggles they’re facing, and Danielle Downey, Hawaii’s first and only dedicated state bee inspector. She was hired to build Hawaii’s new apiary program just after varroa hit in a state where the bee has had no natural pest.
There’s Gus Rouse, whose Kona Queens Hawaii Inc. is the largest producer of queen bees in the state, and whose operations are vital to Canadian commercial beekeepers. He ships more than 100,000 queens to British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and even as far east as Ontario and Quebec. With as many as 300,000 queens going to the U.S. market, he’s a mainstay of the U.S. beekeeping world and his actions in being fleet of foot with the arrival of varroa and small hive beetle has a lot of beekeepers breathing easier.
We’ll also write about how Ray Olivarez and his Big Island Queens, the Hawaiian arm of the massive Olivarez Honey Bees operation from California, has learned to cope with the pests. His family bought out an established Hawaiian breeder just before the pests hit, and he’s watched as small hive beetle has driven labour costs up. He’s not giving up and he firmly believes that Hawaii will be where workable solutions to varroa and the beetle are found.
We’ll also write about Micheal Krones, whose Hawaiian Queen Co.  is also important to Canada but who, for the last two years has not shipped to us because of small hive beetle and a continuing battle to meet Canada’s strict minimum varroa standards for import.
There’s Ron Hanson and Scott Nelson, small beekeepers on the wet side of the Big Island, rebuilding after an almost total wipe-out by small hive beetle, and Whendi and Garnett Puett, whose Big Island Bees is the largest honey producer in the state. But not so big any more; they lost half of their 4,000 hives to the beetle and varroa and are now seeking a new way to live with the pests while maintaining their well-known brands.
Downey, who learned her beecraft under Marla Spivak and then did post-graduate work with Simon Fraser University’s Mark Winston, has come in here with a soft-shoe approach. A place like Hawaii, where hippies-come-beekeepers still have a healthy skepticism for government, doesn’t react well to the top-down approach for how to deal with problems.

Amanda with green turtles sunning themselves at the Punalu'u Beach Park, known for both its jet black sand and its huge turtle nesting area. Jeff Lee photo.

Amanda with green turtles sunning themselves at the Punalu’u Beach Park, known for both its jet black sand and its huge turtle nesting area. Jeff Lee photo.

So Downey has been working quickly but collaboratively with Hawaiian honey producers and queen breeders, bringing in knowledge of better beekeeping in disease environments to a place that never had to deal with pests in the past.
She’s also trying to develop a disease-resistant bee based on the VSH bee genetics out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Amanda and I shot a lot of photographs and video for our little project, and I’ll be writing a story up for my newspaper as well. Over the next few months we expect to publish a number of these stories right here on Honey Bee Zen.
Our trip has greatly influenced our own beekeeping, giving us a better understanding of some issues we face, and offering new approaches to breeding, selection and keeping of our bees.
A final note: the flower you see at the top of this article is a rare yellow version of the Ohia Lehua blossom. This native Hawaiian tree is a massive source of pollen and nectar. Its big pom-pom-like blossoms are normally red.
However, the other day we were up at the Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui, on the upper reaches of Haleakala, the dormant volcano. There, outside the ranch store was this set of yellow Ohia Lehua, and the bees were in them like dirt on a shirt.

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