Honey bees are an integral part of Kailin Kim’s five-acre farm on the Big Island. The bees pollinate food for her free-roaming cattle, boost production of her orange, avocado, longan and lychee orchards and create honey and wax, which Kim sells.
“Bees have become the way that we connect with our community and are able to live the lifestyle that we want: raising our children with us on the farm and really doing something that is fulfilling work,” she said.
Kim rescues feral swarms and manages about 60 hives throughout Kohala, and while she’s grateful for the many benefits of honey bees and works to protect their populations, she’s well aware that they’re technically an invasive species.
There’s some evidence that honey bees can negatively impact an endangered, native bee and some say native pollinators should take priority over honey bees. But others are advocating that Hawaii embrace non-native species to reduce the state’s dependence on imported food.
Honey bees, which are native to Europe, were purposely spread around the world because they’re the most efficient pollinators on the planet. According to a 2007 estimate from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, about 70% of Hawaii’s food crop is dependent on honey bees.
“They’re the most important aspect of farming and growing your own food,” Kim said. “They’re the one piece that you can’t farm without.”
Pests are the biggest threat to honey bees in Hawaii. In 2007 the varroa mite was accidentally introduced to Hawaii, followed by the small hive beetle in 2010. Both pests have killed untold numbers of honey bees in the state.
There’s also foulbrood, a bacterial infection that kills entire hives and decimated the state’s thriving honey industry in the 1930s. Significant resources are dedicated to stopping the spread of foulbrood, varroa mites and other pests, including a ban on importing bees and laws limiting the transportation of bees and beekeeping equipment between the islands.
To learn about the role of honey bees in local agriculture, the threats they face — and three possible solutions, click here or search for “Hawaii Grown” on your favorite podcast app.
Pesticides are also a topic of debate. In 2014 Hawaii banned the use of a certain insecticide largely due to concerns about honey bee death. Environmentalists warn that honey bees can be poisoned when homeowners or farmers don’t carefully follow instructions on the back of insecticide bottles, and some beekeepers advocate for the complete ban of certain chemicals.
But Darcy Oishi, Biological Control Section Chief at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture said the threat to honey bees is overstated.
“In most cases the conversation about bees being endangered, we’re not talking about European honey bees,” he said. “They’re important from an agricultural perspective, but they’re not native here.”
Oishi is much more worried about the health of native pollinators.
Hawaii has 63 species of native bees, known as yellow-faced bees. Hawaii’s yellow-faced bees don’t produce honey nor do they live in hives, and they look more like wasps than fuzzy bees.
“For better or worse, you’re not going to encounter the native Hawaiian bees in a home garden or really in agricultural areas,” said Chrissy Mogren, a pollination expert at the University of Hawaii. “They have very close plant associations with native plants, and so you’re more likely to see them in truly remnant native vegetation habitats.”
Mogren co-wrote a paper on how honey bees interact with one species of Hawaii’s endangered yellow-faced bee. The study found that native bees were much less likely to spend time on a flower that had recently been visited by a honey bee, which doesn’t happen when a flower was visited by a bee of the same species.
“It’s indicative of resource competition and competitive exclusion,” she said.
Mogren recommends that beekeepers move hives away from areas with native bee populations, but honey bees swarm when they outgrow their homes. While she said responsible beekeepers have extra hives nearby to attract swarms, increasing the honey bee population in Hawaii increases the risk of swarms settling in areas populated by native bees.
This could not only impact native bees, said Oishi, but native plants.
“Native pollinators in most cases are better adapted at pollinating the plants they evolved with,” Oishi said. “With the loss of those native bees, we can lose entire habitats that rely on the pollen they provide.”
And Hawaii’s native pollinators are struggling.
Seven species of yellow-faced bee are on the endangered species list. It’s now also rare to catch sight of the Kamehameha butterfly pollinating a flower, despite being named the state’s official insect in 2009. The sphinx moth was once a busy pollinator throughout the islands, relying on Aiea trees as hosts. But now both the moth and its host tree are at risk of extinction.
The Xerces Society is an active advocate for Hawaii’s native pollinators, but it also educates people about how to help honey bee populations in Hawaii.
Certain pests kill both honey bees and native bees. Improper use or overuse of pesticides in residential and agricultural areas can poison any species of bees, and both honey bees and native pollinators will starve without ample access to flowering plants.
Black and Mogren both focus on interventions that could help native pollinators and honey bees because it might be too late to rely solely on native species to pollinate native plants.
“As much as we want these native pollinators to stay around forever if for some reason they go extinct, honeybees could potentially take over,” Mogren said. “At least we wouldn’t lose those native plants as well.”
To help both honey bee populations and native plants, Mogren researched native plants that can be pollinated by honey bees and created a guide for each island.
“When we think about planting native plants, it’s not just about providing habitat for an introduced species but it’s also about preserving culture,” she said, which is why she highlights plants that are used to make leis or are featured in traditional Hawaiian medicines and recipes.
But only a small portion of Hawaii’s edible native plants require pollination and staple crops like taro and breadfruit don’t need to be pollinated. For centuries native pollinators could focus on non-edible flowers without impacting food supply.
“Since Europeans have shown up, the landscape of Hawaii has drastically changed and honey bees are now an integral part of that changed landscape,” Mogren said.
Hawaii already imports an estimated 85% of its food, and there’s nowhere near enough farmers growing native crops to feed the population. So if Hawaii residents want melons, watermelons, cucumbers, squash, lychee, mango, eggplant, avocado and guava at farmer’s markets, the state needs to protect its honey bee population.
Food security was one of the main reasons Kailin Kim, the Big Island beekeeper, started rescuing bees.
“The movement to ‘save the bees’ is not just about bees,” she said. “When we have a healthy environment where bees can thrive it means we’re connected to our food, our gardens and each other. Bees are a part of all that.”
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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Kevin Knodell reports on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.