Hawaii's rained in honey bees

2018 was a rainy year for Hawaii, which proved problematic for the state’s honey bees.

By: Mark Ladao

14 March 2019

Hawaii’s honey bees can forage essentially year round because of the state’s favorable climate, but during an unusually bad winter in 2018 some beekeepers noticed startling trends in their honey production.


In what is normally a paradise for honey bees, some beekeepers reported extremely low honey yields or high colony losses last year. Many said they had to supplement their bees’ food stock with sugar water, something they had not done before.


On Oahu, particularly on the windward side, these changes were due to heavy rainfall.


Rhea McWilliams, who has had his own hives for over 20 years, said 2018 was the worst year he had ever experienced as a beekeeper.


“Every week we would have a hard rain,” said McWilliams. “It wouldn’t last very long, but it would knock all the pollen off the flowers.”


Chrissy Mogren, an assistant research at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the winter rains stopped normal flowering in plants, which in turn affected the bees.


“This means that during the critical time in the spring, when they are trying to build up their colonies and the queens are laying lots of eggs, they’re not having the protein coming into the hives,” said Mogren.


Honey bees make honey—their food—by collecting nectar, bringing it back to the hive, processing it and storing it in honeycomb cells.


McWilliams may have had to deal with more rain-induced problems because many of his hives are located in the windward side of the island.


Justin Duny, who runs Oahu Honey Company, said that he had to help other beekeepers in Waimanalo who called for help because of the rain and subsequent flooding.


“One river pretty much took out over a hundred hives,” he said, adding that the effects of the rain are extremely localized. “It all depends on who you talk to on how well they did.”

Justin Duny, who started Oahu Honey Company, looks over a few of his hives, which he uses for pollination purposes.

Duny checks the health of a hive by looking for a queen.

UH has its own apiary in Waimanalo, and experienced delayed honey harvests in 2018 because its bees were producing honey to stay alive when they usually produce honey for storage.


Duny has hundreds of hives, and although most are in Kapolei, he has strategically placed his bees around the island to avoid problems that might come with putting them all in one place.


However, he did confirm that 2018 was an unusually bad year for his bees.


“2018 was very first time in history I ever had to feed the bees,” he said. “Pretty much I was noticing that they all had their heads inside of the cells looking for food.”


Duny provides pollination services for Aloun Farms in Kapolei. He said that Aloun Farms normally produces enough pumpkins in the state for its annual pumpkin patch festival but that it had to ship pumpkins to Hawaii last year to supplement its pumpkin yield.


Other beekeepers on Oahu appeared to have no problems at all. Tolentino Honey Co. is based in Waianae and reported no drop in honey production or problems with honey bee health. Manoa Honey Company, which has bees in different areas on the island, experienced only a slight drop in production.


Rain did not only affect bees on Oahu.

Duny punctured some of the cells in a hive. The bees, sensing that honey the exposed honey, rushed to eat it so it won’t go to waste.

Big Island Bees, which has 2500 colonies and is based in Captain Cook on the western side of Hawaii island, was also hurt by the heavy rainfall.


“It affected us badly,” said Whendi Puett, owner of Big Island Bees. “When the trees were in full bloom, [the rain] knocked all the bloom off the trees.”


Puett said that Big Island Bees was able to harvest only about a third of its normal crop.


As a state, Hawaii has a relatively small operation when it comes to honey bees and honey production, but they are still strong economic drivers.


According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, Hawaii’s annual honey production is valued at $4.1 million, its queen rearing industry is valued at $10 million and its estimated agricultural pollination value is $212 million.


Hawaii is the world’s largest exporter of queen honey bees, and because its colonies can forage throughout the year, Hawaii’s honey bees can produce more honey per colony than nearly every other state.


Nationwide, honey bees are vital pollinators of some of the country’s most valuable crops. For instance, honey bees are the primary pollinators for almonds in California, which produces nearly all of the world’s almonds.


Honey bees are responsible for about $20 billion in U.S. crop production annually, according to the American Beekeeping Federation, and the National Honey Board estimated that honey in the U.S. was valued at $300 million in 2013.


It is difficult to explain why the rain was so heavy on Oahu’s windward side last year, and scientists are wary of attributing it to a specific cause.


“Rainfall is a very tricky business,” said Pao-Shin Chu, a state climatologist. “It’s not like temperature because of global warming. Rainfall really changes drastically from year to year.”


However, Oahu has been unusually rainy during the last five years. In 2014, 2015 and 2017, data collected at the Honolulu Airport showed that the area received over 20 inches of rain. Oahu’s average annual rainfall is about 15 inches.


The heavy rainfall was just a microcosm of the environmental activity the state experienced in the 2018. In April, heavy flooding caused by record-breaking rainfall hit Kauai. The state’s hurricane season, which runs from June through November, was one of its busiest in decades. The volcanic eruptions in Puna, which destroyed nearby colonies and forced beekeepers to relocate their hives, affected the island from May to September.


While it is too early to make predictions, as honey bees have yet to store large amounts of honey, many beekeepers are optimistic about production this year.


“It’s better than last year, for sure,” Puett said. “We haven’t had the knockout rain.”


Things are looking good on Oahu as well.


“It’s too early in my mind, but at least I’m not experiencing the starvation,” McWilliams said.


Even if there are problems, the state’s beekeepers have proved to be resilient.

Honey bees at the University of Hawaii’s apiary respond to beekeepers disrupting them to check their honey production.

Honey bees at the University of Hawaii’s apiary respond to beekeepers disrupting them to check their honey production.

A bigger, longer-lasting threat to honey bees, the varroa mite, was introduced to the state around 2007. The varroa mite sucks blood from and weakens adult honey bees and brood—eggs, larvae and pupae—and also transmits viral pathogens. One study showed that more than half of Oahu’s colonies collapsed the year after the mite’s arrival.


Beekeepers who had hives before then described beekeeping as a much easier job, one in which they could let colonies be and harvest honey as they pleased. These days, beekeeping is more tedious, as beekeepers have to constantly monitor their colonies for varroa mites.


The small hive beetle, although a less devastating pest than the mite, has also added to the work required of beekeepers.


Still, Hawaii appears to have a growing number of beekeepers, mostly in the form of backyard beekeepers. UH Hilo and Manoa offer classes for beginners, and professionals have noticed that more people are interested in beekeeping, even if it is just as a hobby.


Mogren, who surveyed beekeepers in Hawaii as part of her research to promote honey bee health, showed that about 60 percent of the beekeepers in the state are purely hobbyists. However, she said that it is possible that commercial beekeepers were overrepresented in the survey.


In Honolulu, residents can pick up beekeeping without a license, so the only hurdle to owning bees is finding a colony and a place to put it.


The increasingly difficult part, for more reasons now than ever before, is making sure they stay healthy.

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