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The Crisis Facing The Hawaiian Honey Bee

The honey bees are disappearing from Hawaii.  Declining bee population is a well-known world-wide epidemic, but it's an especially critical problem in Hawaii where we are not allowed to import bees to replace those that have died.  Farmers are reporting reduced crop yields, and the solution is not yet known.

Over the past 5 years, the honey bees, who some call the real rulers of the world, have been dying in record numbers.  By 2010 the bee population in Hawaii had dropped to approximately 50% of its 2007 number. Today it’s roughly 20% of that.  

A statement that I’ve heard repeatedly over the past year is “When I used to walk among my plants and trees, there were lots of honey bees, but I don’t see them anymore.”  So what exactly is happening, and is there anything we can do about it?

There are three primary problems confronting the honey bees in Hawaii today. They are the Varroa mite, Nosema, and the Small Hive Beetle. The Varroa mite weakens the bees, Nosema shortens their lives, and the Small Hive Beetle destroys their hives.

Nosema arrived first.  The exact date is unknown, but it’s believed that Nosema Ceranae arrived in a shipment of pollen that had been imported from China, by some unknown Hawaiian beekeeper that had purchased it to feed their bees. 

Nosema Ceranae is a microsporidian, a single-celled intestinal parasite that affects mainly honey bees. Before the arrival of the Varroa mite, our honey bees were strong and vital, and even when infected with Nosema – as it is commonly called - there were no noticeable negative effects.  But with the arrival of the Varroa mite, the honey bees became weakened and began to succumb to the negative effects of Nosema.  Nosema interferes with the digestive tract of the bees, leading to a shortened life and their eventual starvation. 

The Varroa mite is arguably the most destructive of the three pests. It’s a tiny parasite, approximately 1/16” wide, which attaches itself to the surface of the honey bee and feeds on the bee’s blood.  Varroa mites were first discovered on the island of Oahu in 2007 and a year later on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

On adult bees, the Varroa mites typically attach themselves to what, in laymen’s terms, would be considered the back of the bee’s neck. This is an area that the bees find difficult to groom themselves, and therefore dislodging and remove these small pests requires team effort with other bees from the hive. With time, the loss of blood that the bee suffers, results in a loss of energy, and the entire colony becomes weakened.

With the bees in their weakened state due to the Varroa mite and Nosema, the opportunistic Small Hive Beetle, which arrived in Hawaii in 2010, has had an easy job. These beetles can survive on honey, pollen, wax, honeycomb, honey bee eggs, and larvae. They completely destroy the integrity of the hive, resulting in colony abandonment, with the bees swarming away to a new location.

The problem in Hawaii is further complicated by the fact that the state does not allow importation of honey bees. The Hawaiian Islands are the most remote body of land on the face of the earth, and as a result, in many ways, Hawaii remains one of the most pristine natural habitats on the planet. There are no Africanized killer bees in Hawaii at this time, and we want to keep it that way. So as the bees die in Hawaii, we just have fewer bees, and are less capable of feeding ourselves without importing food.

So what can we do to help these small creatures who do so much to help us? There are various chemical treatments which have been developed, some approved and some not. In my opinion it’s a very precarious thing to use chemicals of any type to treat our bees, because any chemicals used, will almost certainly find their way into the honey that they produced, and that will then be eaten by us.

Isn’t there a more natural way though? The answer is; we think so.

In February and March of 2012 the Big Island Beekeepers Association hosted the Hygienic Queen Selection Class, taught by Jeff Ritchie of Winding Road Apiaries in North Carolina. Jeff raises queen bees commercially, and was here to teach techniques used to breed hygienic queen bees. The queen bee determines the genetic characteristics of the entire colony, and therefore you want your hive populated with hygienic queens if at all possible.

Hygienic behavior is exhibited in bees that keep their hives clean and free from invading pests. Jeff encouraged the members of his class to share their hygienic queens amongst each other, in order to begin achieving some genetic diversity within our hygienic bee population; the ultimate goal being to produce a genetically diverse strain of hygienic bees, which can defend their hives against invading pests.

The Hygienic Queen Selection class focused on training beekeepers how to produce hygienic colonies of robust bees for use in domestic and commercial beekeeping operations.  But what about the wild/feral honey bees in Hawaii, is there any way to help replace those lost colonies? 

There are two things that will help repopulate the bees in the wild.  The first is that even now, there are some feral colonies which exhibit immunity against the attacks of the Varroa mite, Nosema, and the Small Hive Beetle; either due to naturally occurring hygienic behavior, or because they possess some other, yet to be determined characteristic.  These colonies will survive and spread naturally, but on nature’s time table, not man’s, and this may require some painful adjustments in the short term, as we have become accustom to the contribution of the honey bees, and now they are largely gone.

The second thing that will help repopulate the feral honey bees is that although it is never desirable for a beekeeper to have one of his or her colonies swarm and return to the wild, it does happens occasionally.  If a hive of hygienically bred bees swarm into the wild, they will be much better suited to defend themselves and repopulate the areas left vacant by less robust colonies that have died.   

So the conclusion is that it appears imperative that the techniques taught in the Hygienic Queen Selection class, or techniques similar to these, begin to be applied on a large scale within the state of Hawaii.  With this goal in mind, the Hygienic Queen Selection Class was videotaped, and the course can be viewed on the Video portion of this website, which can be navigated to by clicking on the Media tab in the navigation bar at the top of this page, and selecting Video from the drop down list.