CAPTAIN COOK, Hawaii Island – One of the Big Island’s biggest exports also is one of its smallest.

Shipments of honey bees – or more precisely just the vital queen bees – are literally flying off the island.

Annual sales range from $8 million to $13 million, said Darcy Oishi, who runs the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Biological Control Section.

Serving as the colony’s all-important mother, a queen bee like this one in the center rightfully gets lots of attention from her attendants. Courtesy of Karen Olivarez/Karrus Queens

At the going rate of $20 to $40 apiece, that’s a lot of queen bees. And many, many more are needed by mainland farmers.

“I turn away orders for thousands of queens every year,” said Russ Olivarez, who along with his wife, Karen, have owned and run Karrus Queens since 2007.

The queen bee industry generates at least double Hawaii’s $4.1 million in yearly honey sales, state Department of Agriculture figures show.

“Hawaii is home to the largest queen bee producers in the world, providing 25 percent of queen bees shipped to the mainland U.S. and 75 percent of the queens shipped to Canada,” according to the department’s Hawaii Apiary Program.

Nearly all of Hawaii’s queens come from Captain Cook, a rural South Kona community known for its coffee production. Situated on the protected leeward side of Mauna Loa at about 1,000-foot elevation, Captain Cook’s warm, consistent temperatures permit queens to be raised year-round.

“Being in Captain Cook allows us the greatest chance of maybe anywhere in the world of allowing mating days to happen,” said Olivarez, a second-generation beekeeper whose farm is one of four, all on Hawaii Island, that the state has certified to ship bees to the mainland.

Russ Olivarez, co-owner of Karrus Queens, holds queen cells that will mature into valuable bees. Courtesy of Karen Olivarez/Karrus Queens

Virgin queens have four or fewer days to complete the mating process, which cannot occur if the weather is bad, Olivarez said.

“It provides us with these pristine days we need for mating queens,” he said of the Captain Cook environment.

Big Island queens are the only ones available during January and February when it’s too cold for California growers to produce, said Olivarez, who grew up on a Northern California bee farm his father started in 1967.

“There’s a massive amount of queens that come from here (Captain Cook), and without them, it would make a huge impact on the mainland as well as Canada,” Olivarez said.

Indeed, the Big Island queens help to feed the world.

One-third of all the food we eat comes from crops that bees pollinated, according to the Apiary Program.

“It’s a global impact,” Oishi said.

In Hawaii, coffee, macadamia and even nonedible koa trees represent some the $212 million worth of agriculture that bees make possible, according to the Apiary Program.

“Honey bees contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of U.S. crop production,” according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

“Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90 percent dependent on honey bee pollination,” the website said. “One crop, almonds, depends entirely on the honey bee for pollination at bloom time.”

Individual queen bees are shipped to the mainland and Canada in their own little cages. Courtesy of Karen Olivarez/Karrus Queens

A “big chunk” of the almond industry gets its queens from Hawaii, Oishi said.

“They are vital in providing the pollination services for crops throughout North America,” he said.

None of that food is possible without queen bees.

Each honey bee colony has one queen that rules tens of thousands of female workers and a much smaller number of male “drones” that often live a brief, yet stimulating, life.

One queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day and live for several years. Eggs placed in “queen cups” grow into larvae that are fed a protein-rich diet of “royal jelly” that allows queens to become sexually mature, according to Wikipedia.

The high reproduction rate gives farmers a fighting chance at replacing honey bee populations threatened by pests and other environmental factors.

The Apiary Program estimates mainland beekeepers lose 30 percent of their colonies every year. To rebuild, many rely on Hawaii’s gentle European honey bees rather than mainland bees that have cross-bred with invasive African “killer bees.”

Queen bees in individual cages are shipped with attendant bees. Courtesy of Karen Olivarez/Karrus Queens

The result of the cross-breeding on the mainland is Africanized hybrid bees that don’t produce as much honey, while their violent nature makes it more difficult to harvest the honey that is made, Oishi said.

Hawaii’s 100-plus-year ban on imported bees helps ensure a supply of pure queen bees, but it hasn’t kept out all threats to local production.

Varroa mites, which first appeared on the Big Island in 2007 and later on Oahu, are the world’s most-devastating honey bee pest, according to the Department of Agriculture. Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Lanai remain free of varroa mites, which is why Big Island bees cannot be shipped to those islands.

Big Island beekeepers are “doing a really good job” of managing their hives, said Becky Azama, manager of the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Pest Control Branch, which oversees the Apiary Program.

Local queen bee production has the potential to grow beyond its current impact, she said.

“It’s a viable industry,” Azama said. “I don’t know what the limitations would be other than space.”

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