Hail the Queen bee! Hawaii's ruling export
The queen bee is the mother of all bees in a hive.
She's larger than all the other bees, given that she's indulged with royal jelly at birth. The queen reigns supreme, as she lays all the eggs in a colony, up to 50,000, which includes the worker bees and drones she will mate with. Through hormones, she instructs each bee what their role is.
The queen bee is also one Hawaii's most sought-after exports.
In Hawaii, the production of queen bees is actually more lucrative than the production of honey, according to those in the industry.
The market, which the state records but doesn't disclose due to confidentiality restrictions, is captured by a small handful of breeders on the Big Island.
Michael Krones, owner of Hawaiian Queen Company Inc., is one of them.
Hawaii-bred queens are in high demand, not only because they are mite free, but because they can be bred earlier in the year due to Hawaii's warm climes.
"I call them prima donnas," said Krones, who considers queen-rearing an art and a science. "They're beautiful, new queens that have no traces of diseases and no exposure to chemicals like the mainland U.S."
Krones ships between 6,000 to 8,000 queens a month during the peak season. He's already got two years' worth of queen bees reserved by a loyal base of buyers.
"There's a deficit of about half a million queens, and no one can fulfill the deficit," he said.
During the first half of the year, from January to April, he ships mostly to the mainland, and then to Canada in the early summer months.
Kona Queens Inc. at Captain Cook on the Big Island, one of the largest producers of Italian and Carniolan queens, ships them all over the world.
Big Island Queen, another company, also sells the queens.
Depending on the quantity ordered, the queens sell for between $13 to $18 apiece, not including shipping.
They're packed up into mini cages and battery-style boxes, each with her own small court of attendants to feed and serve her.
"They're special ladies," said Krones, who is also experimenting with developing a more disease-resistant and productive breed.
The average lifespan of a queen bee is two to three years, though she can live up to five or more, and produce 800,000 eggs during her lifetime.