Abuzz about a new mission


POSTED: Sunday, September 20, 2009

While honeybees are best known for producing honey, they have another function that plays an even more essential role in nature — as pollinators.

Flying from blossom to blossom, the bees spread pollen grains from male to female in a dance that leads to reproduction.

Michael Kliks, president of the Hawaii Beekeepers' Association and the Manoa Honey Co., notices that the natural buzz of wild bees these days has become much quieter. Without them, homeowners also have noticed a smaller yield from their backyard fruit trees.

Why the bee population is dying off is a complex matter, but no doubt it has to do with the arrival of a pest to Hawaii's shores two years ago.

Kliks still remembers the exact day — April 6, 2007 — he first discovered the Varroa destructor mite, one of the most harmful, bloodsucking pests to smite the honeybee population worldwide, at an abandoned colony in Makiki Heights.

“;I fell to my knees and I started to weep,”; Kliks said.

Up until that fateful day, Hawaii's beekeepers could claim to be one of the few places in the world where the varroa mite had not yet stricken. Thus, they could produce high-quality, raw, organic honey without the use of pesticides.





        » One out of every three bites of food an average American eats is directly attributed to honeybee pollination.

        » Honeybees are responsible for the pollination of more than 100 crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and provide 80 percent of the country's pollination services.

        » The honeybee is responsible for $15 billion in U.S. agricultural crops each year.

        » Bees fly about 10 to 15 miles per hour and visit about 50 to 100 flowers in each pollination trip.

        » To produce 1 pound of honey, honeybees must visit 2 million flowers and fly 55,000 miles.

        » When a honeybee returns to the hive after finding a good pollen source, it gives out samples of the flower's nectar to its hive mates and performs a dance that details the distance, direction, quality and quantity of the food supply. The richer the food source, the longer and more vigorous the dance.

        Source:, Haagen-Dazs

One year later, the mites spread from Oahu to the Big Island, and beekeepers have been in survival mode. Islandwide, Kliks estimates more than half of Oahu's managed colonies have disappeared.

He saw his own colonies fall dramatically to 30 hives from 300. Now he's built it back up to 120, he said, and still has unaffected colonies on Maui and Molokai. His honey is being sold on the shelves of the local Whole Foods Market.

Still, Kliks sees the writing on the wall, and he's aiming to phase out his honey production business, and to pursue pollination services by 2012.

Hawaii honey production has been on the decline since 2005, and continued to fall 2 percent to 900,000 pounds in 2008 compared to 2007, according to statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service Hawaii field office.

Honey yield per colony averaged 90 pounds, down 2 percent in 2008 compared to 2007.

With fewer wild bees in Hawaii, Kliks says farmers may realize it will be worth their while to hire beekeepers to install colonies near their crops.

The top five crops in need of pollination services in Hawaii, according to Kliks, include flowering ones such as watermelon, zucchini, kabocha, honeydew and cantaloupe.

Honeybees pollinate more than 100 crops, mostly in the melon and squash family, but also everything from apples to avocados, mangoes, papayas, pomegranates, and macadamia nuts.

In California, almond growers rely heavily on bees to pollinate their trees, and pay millions to bring in beekeepers from throughout the U.S. In some cases, the almond growers even use a “;bee broker”; who connects them with professional beekeepers.

While the niche has yet to take off in the isles, Kliks says the state estimates Oahu has about 4,000 acres of pollinator-dependent crops.





        Hawaii's honey production has been on the decline since 2005:

Year Production (pounds)Yield per colony

        Source: NASS Hawaii Field Office



Kunia farmer Larry Jefts, who grows watermelons and bell peppers, among numerous other crops, said he's always kept bees on his farm, an art passed down from his father and grandfather.

“;We've been our own beekeeper for some 50 years,”; Jefts said. “;We've always kept bees and used those for our pollination.”;

Jefts says he has observed a substantial drop in the feral bee population, and believes having colonies on a commercial farm are essential to survival.

“;Without them, you have nothing,”; he said. “;If you have no bees, you have no cucumbers.”;

Without the survival of bees, or land set aside for bee colonies as well as agriculture, farms won't survive in Hawaii, either, he said.

Haagen-Dazs ice cream, which has three stores in Honolulu, says bee pollination is needed for ingredients in nearly 50 percent of its all-natural flavors as well as for alfalfa, which is important for milk production.

Haagen-Dazs' Hawaiian Lehua honey & sweet cream is a reserve flavor featuring the unique honey from the Big Island.

The company has launched a “;help the honey bees”; initiative and donates part of its proceeds from its bee-built flavor ice creams (marked with a honeybee logo) and its specially created Vanilla Honey Bee flavor to research.

To get ready for his transition, Kliks, who formed Island Pollination Services in 1994, has readied his own kind of pollination unit, basically a cube with five frames of bees inside that is easy to transport. Each can offer between 6,000 and 10,000 bees.

Kliks, who currently has about 40 of them, is gearing up to have up to 1,000 pollination units by 2012.

He has a few clients, including a farmer in Kahuku with a specialty crop, as well as others on neighbor isles (where he manages a few bee colonies). During most of the '90s, he also served Aloun Farms.

He claims that the presence of his bees could boost production of a crop twofold to threefold. Macadamia nut trees with the help of bees could yield 25 percent more, he said.

As far as the varroa mite situation goes, Kliks said it's beyond the point of no return.

“;Every prediction I made has come true,”; Kliks said.

The varroa mites, despite efforts to isolate them on Oahu, eventually made their way to Hilo and then to Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, where most queen bees are produced. Inevitably, Kliks said, the mites will spread throughout the state, affecting the quality and volume of honey production in the isles.

“;They (Hawaii honeybees) will never, ever not have any mites,”; Kliks said.