Last week I attended a Beekeeping and Honey Production workshop sponsored by the Oʻahu Resource Conservation and Development Council. Even though I am not a farmer, I am concerned about how US industrial agriculture and its reliance on pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs are killing off bee populations. What scientists call “colony collapse disorder” is scary for humans too because a third of all food we eat depends on bee pollination.
Personally, I love honey. Honey has become my main sweetener since I stopped eating white sugar. Raw and pure honey is said to have many health benefits. It is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. Honey can help prevent cancer and heart disease, reduce gastrointestinal problems and throat irritation, and heal wounds and burns. Honey also increases athletic performance and beautifies skin. Imagine a world without honey.
The beekeeping workshop started with presentations by several respected people who work in the field of apiary. I felt sad to learn that many of the native Hawaiian “yellow-face” bees are either endangered or extinct. Once important pollinators of native Hawaiian plants and trees, their population has dwindled due to habitat loss, ant and wasp predation, and competition with non-native honeybees.
The first hives of foreign honeybees arrived on Oʻahu in 1857, when three hives of German bees were shipped from California, purchased by the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society for one hundred dollars each. The hives thrived, tripled in number, and even established wild colonies.
In the following decades, beekeeping became more prevalent and profitable because of the cattle ranching industry in Hawaiʻi. By the 1890s, bees were used to cultivate a hundred thousand acres of mesquite trees, or kiawe, which was used for cattle feed, wood fences, and firewood. That’s a lot of kiawe honey! The introduction of Macadamia nut trees from Australia in 1892 added another stimulant for the bee industry. Many plantations in Hawai’i would not be possible without imported honeybees.
The Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown by a swarm of American agri-businessmen and militia in 1893. Honey producers in Hawai’i exported eight gallons of honey in 1894. By 1897, 100,000 pounds were exported. Hawai’i was illegally annexed by the US in 1898. By 1908, there were nearly twenty thousand bee colonies, managed by seven corporations, in the colony of Hawaiʻi. The last ruling monarch of the Hawaiian kingdom was Queen Liliʻuokalani. She was caged in house arrest after the overthrow.
Peak honey production occurred in 1918: 2.4 million pounds! Honey rhymes with colonial money.
In the following decades, honey prices, demand, and supply fluctuated with the currents of history (the Depression, World War II), as well as the introduction of various pests and diseases into Hawaiʻi’s ecosystem.
Today, local honey production is worth about two million dollars, and locally produced crops that depend on bees for pollination (including melons, cucumbers, tree fruits, and macadamia nuts) are worth about $200 million dollars.
Sadly, Hawaiʻiʻs non-native honeybee population may suffer the same fate as Hawaiʻi’s native bee population. In 2007, the Varroa mite arrived to the islands and devastated the honeybees. Farmers began spraying pesticides into their hives to kill the mites. Then, in 2010, the small hive beetle arrived, and has once again threatened the honeybees. The Hawaiʻi Apiary Program was established in 2011 to help address these issues.
As part of the beekeeping workshop, we put on beekeeping suits and visited some of the hives at the University of Hawai’i agricultural station in Waimanalo. When the beekeeper opened the lid of the hive, I was surprised to see plastic beetle traps inside the hive. They took out the traps to show us the beetles.
As the beekeeper explained the different parts of the honeycomb, he opened one of the eggs to show us the mites that were feeding off the blood of the developing larvae. The danger of the mite is that it carries a disease that can deform the wings of the young bees, weakening their ability to fly.
I’m accustomed to talking about a “colony” in the national sense (a country occupied by settlers and under the political control of another country). But itʻs strange to be around beekeepers who use the word “colony” in a naturalist sense (a group of animals or plants living close together on a physical structure).
When I looked into the bee colony and saw the invasive pests attacking the bees, I saw our communities weakened by invasive settlers, diseases, and pesticides. Just like bees are being endangered, the integrity of our communities is being threatened by colonialism and its disorders. Our wings have become deformed.
Perhaps the most perverse part of the honey industry in Hawai’i is the fact that Hawaiʻi is the world leader in queen bee production. About half of all queen bees used in US agriculture come from Hawaiʻi. The queens are bred and reared in the islands, packaged in little bee cages, and shipped to the continent. Some of the companies have names like Hawaiian Queen Company, Big Island Queens, Kona Queen Company.
Kona Queen Company, for example, sells queen bees for $24 each, and they ship by US Postal Express Mail Service. They are located in the town of Captain Cook, on the Big Island. Their website describes Hawaiʻi as having “The Worldʻs Best Queen Breeding Climate.” Their guarantee: “We deliver strong, healthy, young queens.”
Before we left the orchard, the beekeeper pulled out a honeycomb. We took off our masks and dipped our fingers into the sweet honey. I have never tasted honey straight from the comb. I tried to savor its floral sweetness, syrupy finish, and our uncertain future.