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Local Honey is Having a Moment: What You Should Know About This Sweet Comeback

Hawai‘i’s bees produce more honey per hive than almost anywhere else in the country, despite invasive pests wiping out thousands of colonies just a few years ago. Here’s what makes our honey special and where to find it.


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Honey jar

Photo: Steve Czerniak

 

Think of honey as the essence of what makes Hawai‘i special, concentrated in one sweet little jar. “This is the essence of the sunshine we get, and the rains every day, and the scenery you drive by, the trees. All the elements you see in your daily route,” says Mānoa Honey Co.’s Yuki Uzuhashi, “that is the essence. It’s in the core of honey.”

 

Yuki Uzuhashi
Yuki Uzuhashi.
Photo: DAVID CROXFORD

He’s a bit of a romantic. His fearless idealism brought him to Hawai‘i in the first place. After four years of running a small honey business with his grandmother in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan, something was telling him to shake things up. He answered an ad for the Transpacific Yacht Race looking for crew from Japan to California and California to Hawai‘i. “I don’t know why, but it just hit me; it struck me without reason,” Uzuhashi says, wonderment creeping into his voice. “I applied and was approved as crew on the sailboat even though I don’t know anything about sailing.” Once he arrived in Hawai‘i, he returned to what he knew best: beekeeping.

 

He took over as owner of Mānoa Honey Co. when Michael Kliks retired in 2014. Now, Uzuhashi cares for about 300 hives in 15 locations. Compared to almost anywhere else in the world, he says, Hawai‘i is a beekeeper’s paradise. There’s no harsh winter, tropical flowers bloom year-round and there are no Africanized “killer” bees here. Hawai‘i was fortunate enough to avoid the massive bee deaths that happened around the world in the early 2000s. But we didn’t escape trouble entirely. In 2007, the varroa mite turned up on O‘ahu and, a few months later, the Big Island. A few years later, the small hive beetle came. Though the pests can be devastating, they’re manageable, and the bee population here is recovering, slowly but surely.

 

Queen bee

Spot the queen bee with the yellow mark on her back! 
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

 

“One-third of our food that we eat is pollinated by bees,” says Malcolm Yorkston, who runs Hawaiian Rainbow Bees.  “Whether we’re beekeepers or not, we should care about our bees and the environment. We have to love nature and think about what we put into our bodies and take care of ourselves a little bit better.”

 

Malcom Yorkston
Malcolm Yorkston.
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

Yorkston speaks from personal experience: An elementary school teacher, he was plagued by allergies, tired of spending hours at the doctor’s office and began looking for a natural treatment. Honey is well-known for its health benefits, and he found that eating just two tablespoons every day eased his allergies.

 

Once he started keeping his own bees, he ended up with more honey than he needed, and Hawaiian Rainbow Bees was born. He began selling excess honey at farmers markets and, as demand grew, Yorkston started incorporating honey from about 2,000 hives across the Islands. For hives on other people’s properties, he pays yard rent by giving them a jar of honey. “You can also let them sell your honey. They’re happy to have your bees there because you’re pollinating all the fruit trees,” he says.

 

Mango, avocado, lychee, coconut, citrus, passionfruit—whatever trees are flowering nearby, that’s the flavor of honey you’re going to get. Bees fly a radius of 5 miles, Yorkston says, so, unless your hives are in the center of a macadamia nut field, higher in the mountains near lehua or in valleys near rivers where Christmas berry grows (he has hives near all of these), you’re going to get a blend. “I haven’t found a Hawaiian honey I don’t like,” he says.

 

Piggy Smalls milk and honey

Piggy Smalls’ milk and honey dessert features bee pollen from Mānoa Honey Co..
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

Yorkston’s Rainbow Blossom honey is multifloral with a flavor profile that builds throughout the season, and the taste varies year to year, but it’s generally a nice, quick sweetness that’s a bit flowery. “Mango can make honey bitter when it’s really in bloom,” he says, so he may mix in some honey from other hives to round out the taste, but, generally speaking, it doesn’t make sense to mess with it. He wouldn’t add kiawe honey to his Mānoa blend, for instance, because kiawe doesn’t grow in Mānoa.

 

“I’m comfortable around bees. I don’t love to get stung. It happens. That’s beekeeping.”–Malcolm Yorkston

 

Letting bees do their thing pays off: Hawaiian Rainbow Bees has won Big Island Beekeepers Association’s Hawaiian Natural Honey Challenge awards every year since 2013. Honey experts make their picks through blind tastings. His honey has also been recognized as a “quality product” by the state Department of Agriculture and received the “seal of quality” from the state. Pretty impressive for a small family business that sprang up at the same time the varroa mites were moving in.

 

Sachi and Michi Yorkston

Malcolm Yorkston’s daughters, Sachi, 11, and Michi, 9, help their father collect honey from an apiary in Hawai‘i Kai. 
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

 

It is indeed a family business for Yorkston, his wife, Mitsuko, who works in the botany department at UH, and two young girls, Sachi, 11, and Michi, 9. “My youngest is afraid of bees, but my oldest can pick a bee up in her hands and let it walk around,” he says. They even go out on swarm calls together when they get asked to remove unwanted hives from properties. “I’m comfortable around bees. I don’t love to get stung. It happens. That’s beekeeping.”

 

Honey comb
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

Yorkston believes it’s important to follow organic practices, even though he doesn’t have organic certification. He says this island is too small to guarantee bees aren’t flying to neighboring farms that use pesticides, and the certification process costs a lot of money and takes years to get. Still, he sells raw and unprocessed honey from bees that are kept as far from pesticides as possible. “I just think you need to treat it right.”

 

Over on Hawai‘i Island, Big Island Bees was able to get 100-percent organic certification for two of its honeys, ‘ōhi‘a lehua and wilelaiki (Christmas berry), by placing its bees in remote areas. Even though Christmas berry is an invasive species, owner Whendi Grad says the bees just love it, and it makes a pleasant honey. It’s not very sweet—it has a complex taste and is a bit heavier than some other honeys—which makes it a nice complement to the very sweet lehua and the almost edgy macadamia nut. Grad says they offer these three flavors because trees are plentiful, the flowers produce a lot of nectar and they all bloom at different times. That means they can move their bees seasonally so there’s always fresh bloom, they do just three harvests a year and they never have to feed their bees.

 

“[People] thought my honey was flavored. I’d say, no, it’s from the flower, and they didn’t get that concept.”–Whendi Grad

 

Grad married into a bee family—her husband, Garnett Puett, is a fourth-generation beekeeper and co-owner of Captain Cook Honey Co. He’s the beekeeper and supplier of the product, while she’s the packer, distributor and marketer for Big Island Bees, which she started in 2004 to begin selling their honey directly to consumers and retailers, including Costco.

 

Museum interior

The beekeeping museum.
Photo: Courtesy of Big Island Bees

 

“People are very curious about bees. I was surprised so many people didn’t know basic things,” she says. “I’d go to the farmers market and they thought my honey was flavored. I’d say, no, it’s from the flower, and they didn’t get that concept.” Grad decided to open a beekeeping museum in Kealakekua in 2012 so people could learn how honey is made. Because the family had been in business so long, they had a trove of books, photos and old equipment they could show off. There’s even an area with about 10 hives visitors can tour and look inside. “People really like it. What’s interesting is a lot of people come who are deathly afraid of bees and, after the tour, it really changes them. Suddenly they’re calm and can walk right through without freaking out. They just understand that honeybees aren’t going to sting them unless they’re provoked.” Along with the museum, there’s a tasting room and store, where you can buy beeswax candles, honey soaps and specialty foods, such as chili pepper honey or lehua and cinnamon, which uses organic Hawai‘i-grown cinnamon with white ‘ōhi‘a lehua blossom honey. Big Island Bees honey has been used in other local products as well, including Volcano Wines’ honey wine and Big Island Brewhaus’ Golden Sabbath beer.

 

Hula grill waikiki

Hula Grill Waikīkī’s breakfast menu features a mochi waffle with Kula strawberries, whipped mascarpone and Mānoa honey ($14).
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

“Hawai‘i is having a huge movement of local honey,” said Scott Nikaido of the UH Honeybee Project, which formed to address the pest problem, speaking to a room of beekeepers and enthusiasts at the Western Apicultural Society conference held in Honolulu this past October. It’s become a really profitable industry—Hawai‘i produces the second-most honey per hive in the United States, and Big Island Bees is the largest organic honey producer in the country, even after losing half its hives within two years because of the varroa mites.

 

Honey bees

PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

 

The mites feed on bees and their larvae and can decimate a colony very quickly: In 2008, 65 percent of colonies on O‘ahu died, according to Nikaido. Then the small hive beetle, another serious bee pest, arrived on the Big Island in 2010 and thousands of colonies were lost. That beetle has now spread to Maui, Moloka‘i, Kaua‘i and O‘ahu. “You really have to check your bees on a weekly basis. You can lose them so quickly,” Grad says. But, thankfully, with proper training and maintenance, beekeepers can manage the pests. “A lot of people used to just have bees in their backyard and not have to do anything. That’s not the case anymore.”

 

“Hawai‘i is having a huge movement of local honey.”–Scott Nikaido

 

Indeed, “Beekeeping is on the rise in Hawai‘i,” says Lauren Rusert of the Hawai‘i Apiary Program, which formed under the Department of Agriculture in 2011.  “We have over 300 registered beekeepers with our program around the state, but we estimate that there are double or triple that number of actual beekeepers.” There are more than 20,000 colonies here—even after about 20 percent of feral hives were lost to pests. In Honolulu, individuals are allowed to keep up to eight honeybee hives on their property, as long as they follow county guidelines.

 

Honey bear bottles
A Mānoa Honey Co. employee labels jars of honey at its Wahiawā warehouse.
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

“It’s not necessarily that Hawai‘i has more beekeepers, but more people are discovering it,” Rusert says. “Not many people know how good we have it here with bees. It’s not overcrowded right now. If more Mainland people found out how good we have it, there’d be a lot more.”

 

The local honey industry made a big leap in 2013, when then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill that bumped up the threshold for selling uncertified honey from 50 gallons to 500 gallons a year. But just because it’s not certified by the Department of Health doesn’t mean it’s not safe. Rusert says anyone who wants to sell honey to retailers such as Safeway has to take a free two-day health class and get a certificate, plus include information on the label that says it was not produced in a certified kitchen, it’s not meant for infants under 1 year old and include their address. This doesn’t apply to companies that sell their products directly or at farmers markets. 

 

Chef Alan Wong’s Adopt-a-Beehive Program, in partnership with UH Hilo, provides scholarships to beekeeping students who can now obtain a beekeeping certificate there. In November, Wong hosted a special event for adopters in which he showcased harvestable products from the UH Hilo hive, including pollen, honey and propolis, which is a sort of bee-made glue known as a health supplement. Wong has also used these products in his restaurants.

 

Banan

At Banán, the majority of the ingredients used are local, including honey, drizzled here over a banana soft serve in a papaya boat and topped with strawberries, coconut, puffed quinoa and pineapple ($9).
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK

 

Many Hawai‘i restaurants and hotels use local honey when possible. The Hyatt Regency Waikīkī even has its own bees: 250,000, according to executive chef Sven Ullrich. Just six hives produce all the honey served at its restaurants and sold in 4- and 8-ounce jars. The honey, called Hula Meli, is harvested weekly.

 

Morning Glass Coffee and Café, which wanted to use honey from Mānoa Valley, sells Mānoa Honey Co. honey produced from nearby hives. It also uses it in some scones occasionally. Uzuhashi provides honey to Ed Kenney’s restaurants, as well as 12th Ave Grill, Chef Chai and even the Four Seasons. “It’s really great that we got support from those chefs. That is a really good thing,” he says. Whole Foods Market and BLT Market came to his warehouse in Wahiawā to see the operation and how honey is made. 

 

Yuki with bees

PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

 

“If you feel where you live and where you visit is special, this is what it is,” Uzuhashi says of honey, musing philosophically. “A lot of people know honey, but maybe a couple percent know how honey is made.” He says that more people should buy local to support beekeepers because bees are such an important part of the food chain, and it’s not that difficult to keep them healthy. When they are, there’s more honey for the rest of us, and that’s pretty sweet.

 


 

Local honey

Photo: David Croxford

Where to Get Your Buzz On

You’ll find Hawaiian honey on the shelves alongside national brands like Kirkland, Sue Bee Honey and O Organics at almost every major grocery store, including Costco, Safeway, Times Supermarkets, Down to Earth, Foodland and Kōkua Market. In 2015, Whole Foods Market’s three locations on O‘ahu sold 619,867 ounces of local honey. Even some boutique retailers (Magnolia and The Compleat Kitchen at Kāhala Mall, Fishcake) carry certain brands. In Waikīkī, ABC Stores and some hotels sell honey in gift packages. Plus, you can always go straight to the source: Many farms and beekeepers sell honey in their shops or through their websites, and the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau farmers markets have regular honey vendors.

 

SEE ALSO: 7 Buzzworthy Local Honey Products

 

By the Numbers

50,000

Average number of bees per hive

 

93

Pounds of honey produced per hive in Hawai‘i

 

Honey bottles
Photo: David Croxford

$15 billion

Value of agriculture pollinated by bees in the U.S.

 

$212.8 million

Value of agriculture pollinated by bees in Hawai‘i

 

$25

Cost of one queen bee

 

$10 million

Value of queen bee exports from Hawai‘i

 

25 percent

Amount of the Mainland’s queen bees that come from Hawai‘i

 

75 percent

Amount of Canada’s queen bees that come from Hawai‘i

 

Source: Hawai‘i Apiary Program

 


 

TAKEAWAY: Small businesses almost always charge more for artisan products, but local honey offers an opportunity to support Hawai‘i’s economy and agriculture, get a unique, high-quality honey that tastes amazing, all for only a few extra cents per ounce. Why wouldn’t you buy local?

 

READ MORE STORIES BY KATRINA VALCOURT

 

 
 
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