The Fight to Save Bees

With the global bee population in crisis, how are Hawaii's hives doing?

Rhea McWilliams, Jr., checks his bee hives with New Beginnings Farm owner Eleni Aikau.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Last October, honolulu magazine covered the Varroa destructor, a vampire-style mite that attacks honeybees around the world, including those on Oahu. As if bees didn’t have enough going against them, much of their population globally is also suffering from a mysterious illness called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.

Theories abound, but researchers are still puzzled as to what causes CCD. “New Zealand says it’s a virus,” says Dr. Neil Reimer, the plant pest control branch chief for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA). “On the Mainland, people think it’s a virus, plus the mites and other factors. It’s not like you find a bunch of dead bees. You see a decline, but things seem to be going OK. And then [the bees] just disappear.” The good news is that Hawaii has yet to experience an outbreak of CCD.

But the bad news is grave.

Approximately 90 percent of the wild bee population on Oahu has been wiped out due to the varroa mite, according to Hawaii Beekeepers Association president Dr. Michael Kliks. “We had 8,000 to 10,000 feral colonies, doing the heavy work of pollinating commercial crops, such as zucchini and cantaloupe, and backyard crops, like fruit trees, as well as our rare and endangered plants.”

Without the wild bees, “you’ll need a managed colony in the area if you want a crop,” says Rhea McWilliams Jr., a beekeeper who lives in Lanikai. “People are starting to do pollination contracts.”

But there simply aren’t enough bees for hire to go around. “I don’t have bees to spare,” says Kliks. “We need at least 4,000 to 5,000 managed, healthy hives on Oahu. We’re down to 300 or so.”

While a chemical treatment exists to fight the mites, it has to be applied to a managed colony often. “[The bees] are still dying,” says McWilliams. He says he used to visit his hives three to four times a year, and now has to go every other week to monitor the mite levels. “I’ve been trying to use nonchemical treatments, without much success.”

At first, efforts to contain the mite, first seen in M-anoa in April 2007, to Oahu appeared to be working. According to Reimer, the HDOA was monitoring the presence of the mites in hives on the Neighbor Islands. That department was also keeping bees away from port areas, using swarm traps—they contain either a queen bee pheromone or a honeycomb—to collect feral bees before they could stow away on a boat to a Neighbor island.

But in late August, evidence of mites were found near Hilo Bay. Concerns are that the Big Island, home to 95 to 99 percent of Hawaii’s apiary business, are especially at risk. The island has organic honey producers, and a multimillion-dollar industry that rears queen bees, or the “breeders.” “Queen bees are $13 to $25 each,” explains McWilliams.

“There can be no doubt that this will be a huge disaster for diversified ag unless immediate, draconian mitigation actions are taken by deploying a military-style area-wide suppression campaign,” Kliks says via e-mail. He supports measures such as exterminating all bees and starting fresh with new colonies.

The HDOA notes that the mites have not been found in any managed hives on the Big Island, but has set up 100 swam traps near Hilo and additional traps around the island to capture feral bees.