Let's BEE Real – A Look into the Reality of Beekeeping

Ask any beekeeper around why they love bees and I’m sure you will get a range of answers. For some it is the relaxing moments in nature spent with the familiar buzz of bees, while others live for the thrill of working with thousands of stinging insects. Nonetheless, one thing we all share in common is a mutual respect and fascination for the tiny insects we know and love as honey bees. 

Fortunately for us humans, honey bees work selflessly every day as pollinators of our food resources, generously sharing their valuable honey, beeswax, pollen, royal jelly, and propolis with us for centuries. Although not native to Hawaiʻi, the importance of nalo meli (lit. honey fly) in Hawaiʻi were recognized since the 1800’s when the first hives were brought here from California. Today, Hawaiʻi’s honey bees face deadly pests, viruses, and diseases, but practicing responsible beekeeping methods can help our island bees to thrive. 

Interested in Beekeeping?

Interested in becoming a beekeeper? Beekeeping can be a rewarding hobby reaping great benefits, but for most new-bees it is also a puzzling challenge that requires time, dedication, patience, skill, and experience to learn. So before you run out and buy bees from the next beekeeper you meet, here are some essential things you need to consider before beginning your journey into beekeeping. 

First, do your research. There is a Hawaiian proverb “ʻAʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi,” meaning not all knowledge can be learned from one source. Don’t rely on one mentor, one book, or one website to learn all you can about bees. Get your hands on as many resources as possible and read, read, read. Watch videos and documentaries, attend beekeeping classes, question a variety of beekeepers, and always keep an open mind. There is no “right” way to keep bees and you will find over time what works best for you, but a top priority should always be maintaining healthy colonies and a safe environment (not only for your bees but also for your family and neighbors). Remember, there is always more to learn. Even to the top researchers, beekeepers, and scientists, there is still much unknown about the mysterious behaviors and variety of factors affecting honey bees, so remain humble in your newfound beekeeping knowledge. 

 Varroa mites are a tiny and deadly external parasite infesting honey bee colonies in Hawaiʻi and around the world. However, they can be managed with vigilance and various beekeeping techniques.

Varroa mites are a tiny and deadly external parasite infesting honey bee colonies in Hawaiʻi and around the world. However, they can be managed with vigilance and various beekeeping techniques.

Before you invest your time and resources into beekeeping, make sure you can commit to properly managing your colonies. As a beekeeper, it is your responsibility to open up and inspect the brood nests of your hives on a regular basis. You will need to be able to recognize and identify signs of viruses and diseases, apply swarm control techniques, and manage varroa mite levels. 

 A honey bee suffering from deformed wings, a virus transmitted by varroa mites. This worker bee will never be able to fly or forage and will eventually be expelled from the hive.

A honey bee suffering from deformed wings, a virus transmitted by varroa mites. This worker bee will never be able to fly or forage and will eventually be expelled from the hive.

It is a common misconception that bees can take care of themselves and by purchasing a hive you are helping increase local bee populations. In reality, more harm than good can actually be done if you neglect to monitor the health of your colonies – your bees could unintentionally spread varroa mites, deformed wing virus, European or American Foulbrood, causing harm to thousands or millions of surrounding bees in your area. 

Even though backyard beekeeping has become quite a trend in the last few years, you’ll also want to consider your neighbors before you set up any hives on your property. Although frequently overlooked, Hawaiʻi County does list beekeeping as a permitted use only in the ‘A’ (Agricultural) District and apiaries “must be located no closer than one thousand feet away from any major public street or from any other zoning district.” (Chapter 25 Zoning, Section 25-5-72) The last thing you want is for anyone to get hurt or have any complaints headed your way! 

When you’re ready to get started with bees, youʻll need to find a reputable local beekeeper to purchase a starter colony from, preferably one recommended by the Department of Agriculture’s Hawaiʻi Apiary Program. Many people don’t know it is illegal to import bees or used beekeeping equipment into Hawaiʻi and subject to felony charges and fines up to $200,000! Make sure to ask your source how often they check their mite levels and what they do to control mite populations or you could be acquiring more than just honey bees! 

The Hawaiʻi Apiary Program will be an important resource in your beekeeping endeavors. This program was established in 2011 to help protect the health of our honey bees and support Hawaiʻi beekeepers. Their knowledgable team surveys apiaries across Hawaiʻi every year to ensure healthy colonies, prevent the spread of diseases, and monitor ports for biosecurity to prevent new pest infestations. They also teach beekeeping classes and offer free apiary inspections, advice, and troubleshooting help to all beekeepers in the state. 

 learn more about their services, join the voluntary beekeeper registry, connect with beekeepers for purchasing starter colonies and queens, and find a list of recommended books and websites for reading. 

learn more about their services, join the voluntary beekeeper registry, connect with beekeepers for purchasing starter colonies and queens, and find a list of recommended books and websites for reading. 

If you aren’t ready to become a beekeeper yourself, but are in need of pollination services for your Big Island farm or would like to get honey bees established on your property, feel free to contact us for more information. 

Originally published on October 27, 2017 in The Kohala Mountain News.