LIHUE — Ask any beekeeper the worst thing to hit the islands since Hurricane Iniki and they’ll probably tell you this: Varroa mite.
When the reddish, pinhead-sized parasite was discovered on Oahu in 2007, it wiped out just about every one of Ken Harmeyer’s honeybees. It spread to the Big Island in 2008.
“I went from 15 hives to basically half of a hive — and that was just in six months,” said Harmeyer, who’s been beekeeping for a dozen years. “For me, that was devastating because I’m just a hobbyist. One guy that I know had 160 hives and he went down to probably 40.”
The Varroa mite is collapsing bee colonies around the globe by attaching itself to the honeybee and sucking the bee’s blood until it dies. Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and some of the Hawaiian Islands are the few locales on Earth that are currently considered Varroa mite-free.
There is a very real possibility that it will continue to spread.
If Harmeyer had the chance to breed his bees to be resistant to the mite prior to its landfall in Hawaii, he said he absolutely would have done it. No question about it.
On Kauai, where the mite doesn’t yet exist, beekeepers will soon have that opportunity.
Kauai Community College has secured a grant from the state Department of Agriculture to bring to the island the semen of Varroa mite-resistant bees. Queen bees inseminated with the semen will breed bees that may have a fighting chance against the mite, should it one day appear on Kauai.
The stakes are high. If the mite reaches Kauai, a significant portion of the island’s current stock of bees could quickly die off. By breeding bees that are hyper hygienic — those that constantly groom themselves and are able to detect the mite on their body and remove it before much blood is lost — the Garden Isle’s bees could greatly improve their survival rate.
That’s not only an improved scenario for bees and beekeepers, advocates said, but also for farmers. Bees, introduced to Hawaii in the 1850s, are integral to honey production as well as the pollination of crops.
“The mite is the single worst thing to happen to bees in our lifetime,” said Danielle Downey, the state’s apiculture specialist. “Before, beekeeping was pretty easy. Varroa changes everything because if you don’t do anything about it, your bees will die.”
Not every beekeeper is jumping at the opportunity to breed bees with a potentially life-saving cleanliness trait. David Rees, who started beekeeping in Wainiha a year ago, doesn’t like the idea of meddling with his bees’ genetics.
“Technically, what the state would be doing is GMO bees,” he said. “In a matter of years, every bee on Kauai would be the new engineered bees and there would be none of our unique Kauai bees left. We have the potential for damaging something that’s good to prevent something that may never happen, and we’re going to do it without even studying our bees to see if our bees are already resistant to the Varroa mite.”
Downey acknowledges that the idea of protecting Kauai’s bees through trait selection might seem scary to beginner beekeepers. But she said the practice is widely used in more serious beekeeper communities. Trait selection allows for the conscious breeding of bees that have desirable qualities such as gentle temperaments, low swarming tendencies, high honey production and, most importantly, Varroa mite sensitivity.
On Kauai trait selection is relatively foreign. Downey said she knows of just one beekeeper on the island who is using the method to steer bee temperament.
“This is a classic breeding system,” said Downey, who disputes that trait selection is anything like the GMO process. “For example, if you want a big dog, you breed two big dogs.
“There’s a propensity for the community to think that what’s natural is what’s best, but it’s a pretty unnatural situation anyway.”
Kauai’s bee is not native to the island. According to Downey, it is a cross between the German bee, which is known for its aggressive and defensive temperament, and the Italian bee, which is gentler, produces a lot of honey and is yellow in color. Downey said Kauai’s bee is similar to the bees found on the other Hawaiian Islands.
It has not been determined whether Kauai’s bee is naturally Varroa mite resistant, according to Downey. That, she said, would be resource intensive to find out.
“The Varroa sensitive trait that I’m talking about is like blue eyes,” Downey said. “You find it in many kinds of bees. It would be hard to test whether Kauai’s bee has it because we would either need to bring some Kauai queens to an island that has Varroa or bring Varroa to Kauai, which would defeat the purpose of all of it.”
Beekeeper Jimmy Trujillo, who teaches classes in KCC’s apiary program, said one good thing to come from the Varroa mite’s arrival in Hawaii is that the state is now committing resources to Kauai beekeepers that didn’t previously exist.
While he said he’s still on the fence about whether he thinks the breeding program is a good one, he said he thinks a lack of communication between state apiary workers and local beekeepers is at the root of many local beekeepers’ concerns.
“I think a majority of folks would love to have a productive, gentle bee and not be bothered by aggressive bees that prevent them from enjoying their hobby,” Trujillo said. “A lot of our beekeepers aren’t very skilled or knowledgeable; we’re hobbyists. I’m in that camp. I think we need to understand the issues better and we need better communication.”