The Buzz on Kaua'i
It’s a cloudless winter morning on Kauaʻi’s South Side where I’m balanced on one foot in a dense patch of guinea grass. I’m rushing to zip myself into an all white one-piece protective bee suit before we have company. I check my ankles, wrists and neck to be sure that all access points are closed while my host, Oliver Shagnasty, sets fire to a piece of burlap and stuffs it into his bee smoker, a device that looks like the Tin Man’s hat.
Just beyond us in a small clearing, handmade white wooden boxes stand side by side stacked five-high like shelves. This is where Shagnasty’s honeybees live. The bees, a European variety, “a few Italians, a few Germans,” are in a good mood this morning, Shagnasty tells me. I’m glad to hear that because soon there are thousands of them swarming around us. Shagnasty, a 38-year veteran honey farmer, keeps around 100 hives in five sites around the island.
Thanks to Kaua‘i’s warm, mostly sunny climate, and cornucopia of flowering plants, bees produce honey year-round here, about 100 pounds per hive, Shagnasty says. His bees feed mostly on the nectar of Christmas berry, Java plum, kiawe (mesquite), neem trees and coffee shrubs. Because bees can fly up to five miles and will gladly get into anything that flowers, Shagnasty doesn’t call his honey “organic.” Instead he markets his products as Shagnasty’s Kaua‘i Natural Raw Honey.
Shagnasty is a purist in the world of apiculture (beekeeping). He uses no pesticides, herbicides or chemicals. When harvesting honey it’s just him, some simple non-mechanized equipment and the bees. Today he is with his helper, Mateo Moore, who he’s taken under his wing as a junior beekeeper. The morning air is punctuated by cardinals in song and the mischievous chirping of Common Myna birds overlaid with buzzing bees. A frantic cloud of stingers and wings pours out of the colony boxes as Shagnasty inspects the hives and collects their honey.
As he works, Shagnasty pumps smoke onto the hives to mask the bees’ defense pheromone, making for a calmer, more congenial visit. Because Kaua‘i’s South Side is usually sunny, the bees here spend more time collecting pollen and are his most productive. “Are the bees still in a good mood?” I ask. “Oh, they’re thrilled,” Shagnasty says dryly.
Bees just want to have fun.
These bees are smart too. They can distinguish between one stack of white boxes from the next and know exactly which colony is their own. Bees identify their hive by its unique pheromone and, just as we don’t mistakenly wander into our neighbor’s house, bees know which hive is theirs and at the end of a long day of collecting pollen, return to their proper place.
Each colony houses three types of bee: drones, workers and one queen. A hive can include up to 60,000 (female) worker bees, just 500 male drones and a lone queen bee. Mateo shows me a drone, explaining it has no stinger and produces no honey. The drone’s sole purpose in life is to mate with the queen bee from another colony.
“They’re a bunch of guys hanging out—they’re just there to have a good time,” Shagnasty explains. When it’s time to mate, the drones gather in what’s called a “drone congregation area” where, when the queen arrives, they do their part in spreading genetic diversity one time and then expire. “What a life!” Shagnasty exclaims, “Just imagine...being wanted!”
During the busy nectar-collecting season, worker bees live about six weeks until they literally wear out their wings. Drones live up to two months and queen bees can live as long as four years. When I ask if bee keeping is a sustainable practice on Kaua‘i, Mateo answers, “It can be, as long as people don’t use too many pesticides.”
A world without bees?
The threat from industrial chemicals can be devastating to bees. But one of the greatest threats to honeybees worldwide comes from a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD) and pests like the Varroa destructor mite and small hive beetles. These insects, which are wreaking havoc on bees across Hawai‘i and around the world, have yet to reach Kaua‘i—the last of the large Hawaiian Islands to remain free of the scourge.
Shagnasty doesn’t take much comfort from this and reckons it’s only a matter of time before these bee-killing insects reach the Garden Isle. In anticipation of this, he has already begun changing screens and fittings on his boxes to protect his hives. There may soon come a time, Shagnasty worries, when managed hives will be the only home for bees left on the island. The invasive mites and beetles, he says, could potentially kill off Kaua‘i’s wild bee population.
By remaining small and intentionally keeping his business a mostly one-man operation, Shagnasty maintains a much more immediate relationship with his bees and has greater control over his product. A smaller operation means he can pull certain types of honey from individual hives, providing his customers with specific varieties–some lighter, some darker. People might request a certain type of honey and Shagnasty is able to search each hive, frame by frame, for what he thinks his customer will enjoy most. The beekeepers are almost finished collecting and just in time, the bees are growing ornery, flying more erratically and buzzing louder and louder. As I snap photos, the bees swarm my camera, making me extra conscious of the small hole in one glove. Shagnasty’s bees, I learn, don’t like the color black.
After 45 minutes, Shagnasty has taken enough honey-filled frames and is ready to return to his “honey house” for harvest. As we quickly retreat to Shagnasty’s truck, he brushes the now very clingy bees off his suit and jokes, “They’re all ready for a party and we’re the main course.” Once we’re safely behind glass, the morning’s honey collected without a single sting, Shagnasty turns to me and says, “Nobody gets rich doing this. It’s one of those things you do for the love of it.”
Look for Shagnasty’s Kaua‘i Natural Raw Honey in the these and other locations on Kaua‘i: Java Kai Coffee, Papaya’s Natural Foods, Aloha Spice Co., Harvest Market, Island Soap & Candle, Divine Planet, Old School Coffee, Banana Joe’s, Little Fish Coffee or by emailing Shagnasty directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting www.shagnastyhoney.com.
Sweet Tour. Ever wonder what it’s like to visit a honey farm? Beekeeper Mateo Moore offers a 2-hour tour at a 10-acre botanical garden filled with fruit trees, exotic tropical plants and beehives. Learn about the science and history of beekeeping, suit up in protective clothing and have a look inside active beehives with Mateo as your guide. Call (808) 212-6772 for reservations.