What do honeybees and Tyrannosaurus rex have in common? Certainly, it isn’t their bite or size. They actually both co-existed during the late Cretaceous Period, 145-65 million years ago—and here is where most similarities come to an end. Among many differences, the most apparent is that only one of these ancient creatures survived the mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary that was responsible for the grand finale of the dinosaurs’ reign. Considering that this mass extinction of the dinosaurs was probably caused by a billion megaton asteroid impact, which wiped out most living things across the planet, it seems quite remarkable that a tiny winged insect proved tougher and more resilient than a 42-ft long, 7-ton apex carnivore. So, what could possibly be more destructive than a billion megaton asteroid impact? You guessed correctly—alas, we humans are the usual suspects.
Over millions of years, honeybees have changed little in their physical makeup and influential position within the ecosystem. They evolved from their ancestors, the predatory wasps, to take on the role of pollinators for flowering plants. Once established, they helped shape many of the ecosystems across the planet and are found in every habitat with insect-pollinating flowering plants. Although they have a rather short life span compared to us—three to four weeks—they accomplish quite a bit during their tenure.
As a “keystones species,” honeybees stand out as one of the most important pollinators not only for wild plants, but also for our expensive and important agricultural system. The first documented interactions between humans and bees were around 8000 years ago; European cave paintings depict our ancient ancestors harvesting bees. Since that time, an expansive industry has developed around our relationship with bees. A large part of our modern diet is directly related to bee pollination, without which it is estimated we would suffer a 30 percent loss of available human nutrition including fruits, vegetables and legumes. If you have a particular attachment to any of these, it’s time to pay attention to the plight of bees.
The economic value of pollination across the world is estimated to be more than $215 billion according to the journal of Ecological Economics. In short, we have come to depend on bees for our success and soon they may be dependent on what we choose to do. The very agricultural system and society that bees have helped to support, in an ironic twist of fate, may also be causing their decline. Scientists and officials from the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) have highlighted the decline of pollinating species in recent years. Today’s farmers now regularly rent honeybees to pollinate their crops, as the feral populations have dropped 90 percent in the U.S. over the last 50 years. Afflictions such as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where all of the adult bees disappear in a colony, have been linked to the bees’ demise. Viruses, pesticides, poor nutrition, and mite infections have all been correlated with this disorder and the decline of bees. Loss of habitat, loss of nectar corridors as land is cleared for agriculture and housing, light pollution, invasive species introductions, and air pollution have all been shown to disrupt bee pollination. The decline of honeybees could result in the loss of thousands of plants for food, fibers for textiles, and natural compounds for medicines. It would seem we have become the species with the crueler sting.
What will be the fate of bees, especially on an island state such as Hawai‘i? Where better to get some answers than from an expert on apiculture, more particularly on beekeeping. Richard Spiegel, the founder of the Volcano Island Honey Company (VIHC) near Honoka‘a on the Hämäkua Coast, is an all around expert on honeybees. His company has been producing Rare Hawaiian Organic White Honey from a single kiawe (mesquite) forest on Hawai‘i Island for 30 years. The picturesque operation nestled in the forested wet-side of the island is one of many local artisanal honey producing businesses on the Big Island—all of which are concerned about the health of the honeybee.
The main type of bee nurtured by VIHC is the gentle Italian honeybee known for its delicious, efficient honey production. The majority of their hives are kept in a kiawe forest described by Richard as “an oasis” on the dry side of the island above Puako. This aptly named oasis is created by an underground aquifer that trickles down under Puako from the upslope watershed creating a thriving forest in what should otherwise be a barren, lava-rock desert. But all is not well in this oasis. In recent years, numerous threats to the Big Island honeybee population have begun to take a toll on the health and very future of the bees and the bee industry. According to Richard when he first started raising bees 30 years ago, “beekeeping was a lot easier.” The general isolation of the islands and the smaller size of the agricultural industry accommodated a healthy bee population. “We were one of the only places in the world that didn’t have Varroa mite,” says Richard. This is no longer the case. Although Hawai‘i has no recorded cases of CCD, on April 6, 2007, the first discovery of an infestation by the parasitic mite Varroa destructor was recorded in a hive in Honolulu. On August 22, 2008, the same destructive mite was first recorded in a hive near Hilo Bay on the Big Island. The Varroa mite carries a host of viruses that enter the bee’s body through puncture wounds made on the body by the mite. Once infected, the bee’s lifespan can decrease by two thirds. It is thought that these pesky mites were introduced with mite-resistant Asian bees into areas where non-resistant European honeybees lived.
Two more recent invaders, Nosema ceranae, and the most recent, the small hive beetle, have further exasperated the plight of bees on the Big Island. Nosema is a type of fungus that can shorten the bee’s life span by about one week. A bee spends the first part of its life inside the hive cleaning, feeding, and ripening nectar into honey; whereas the later part of its life is spent foraging for both nectar, which is used to make honey, and pollen, which is used as protein and feed for larvae. The loss of this critical foraging phase is detrimental to the overall health of the hive. The more recent invasion of small hive beetles first appeared in southern Puna and has since spread to hives around the island. This ambitious beetle, responsible for the loss of thousands of hives on the island, lays its eggs in the hives. As the larvae develop, they eat everything in the hive leaving a slime, which renders the hive unlivable for the bees. “We’re running a thin edge,” says Richard, “bees are threatened and bees are an intricate part of our ecosystem. Whether or not honeybees are going to make it on this island or anywhere is a real question, they have been dying for a long time.”
If you enjoy the sweet smell of island flowers, the taste of local honey from the farmers market, or the security of an intact ecological web necessary for life’s fundamentals, then this is once again, another issue of concern for you. But all is not lost. We can effect positive change just as much as we have effected negative change. A new line of bee known as the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene bee (VSH) has been bred for its hygienic behavior in dealing with threats such as the Varroa mite. Entomologists selectively crossbred this bee for cleaning and hive maintenance behaviors found in Asian bees resilient to such threats. Like a human with a healthy immune system, the VSH bee staves off stresses through a combination of genetically predisposed behaviors such as cleaning out mite eggs quicker and through learned behaviors such as posting sentries at the hives entrance to fend off invaders. Innovative techniques, such as breeding VSH bees, although in their infancy, have shown promising results.
Richard also speaks passionately about the beekeeper’s role in providing the bees with the best chances for survival to deal with their threats. “I only go into their savings account, I don’t take what they need for food,” he says. This is contrary to many larger honey production outfits that know honey is more expensive than sugar so they “take all the honey from the bees and feed them sugar.” What Richard alludes to is a larger problem with the system of agriculture we as a society have developed. The common business model in agriculture is often what makes money is the best business solution. Richard offers another theory, “We make business decisions that attempt to avoid negative impacts on nature and other humans even if it costs more financially. My concern is bigger than just the bees; it is the way we humans deal with the earth in terms of food, farming, and bees—we can’t abuse the earth continually and expect to have no consequences.” In summary “for what is going on with the bees, humans, and the earth, there are opportunities to craft lasting solutions, we first have to change the way we think about long term impacts versus short term profits.”
Although the beekeeping industry is relatively small on the Big Island, it radiates out across the ocean. Many crops in areas like California are dependent on imported bees from the Big Island to pollinate their crops. The almond crops in California take advantage of the year round queen bee breeding on the Big Island and pollinate their crops early in the growing season. This year was the first of possibly many more to come where contracts could not be totally fulfilled because of the loss of bees on the island. In a larger context, the plight of bees radiates out through the world of agriculture and impacts the very foundation we build our societies upon. For thousands of years, we have taken free-of-charge from the bees, but the time to pay-up may well be upon us.
There is no doubt as to the importance of honeybees and the valuable ecological services they provide. Many environmental groups are taking action to restore bee habitats, create preserves, reduce monoculture lawns in favor of more diverse landscaping techniques, and reduce the overall destructive effects that pesticides, pollution, and shortsighted agricultural practices have on bees and humans alike. Will this be enough though? “Sustainability is a consequence, it is not a goal to try and achieve,” says Richard, “It is a consequence of a lifestyle. If you live with sensitivity to the earth, then your end product is going to be sustainable, whatever it is.” The future of the honeybee is as uncertain as our own species’ destiny. But modifying our mindset about the use of natural resources and looking after this little buzzing overachiever might be essential elements to maintaining our own hive.
If you would like to learn more about agriculture, bees and honey production on the Big Island, you can take a farm tour at Volcano Island Honey Company (808) 775-1000 or VolcanoIslandHoney.com.