A Busy Little Parasite
Pinhead-sized bee mite threatens the state's $500 million agriculture industry
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UNFORTUNATE DISCOVERY: Michael Kliks found the varroa mite in an abandoned beehive in Makiki Valley last April. "It changed our lives, all of our lives," he says.
No one knows how it got here. But we do know when it was first sighted.
In the early afternoon of April 6, 2007, Michael Kliks, owner of Manoa Honey Co. and president of the Hawaii Beekeepers Association (HBA), worked his way to an abandoned bee colony in Makiki Valley. Despite being untended for several years and being covered with overgrowth, bees were buzzing within the manmade hive. A day after clearing vines, Kliks managed to remove a hive panel, but then accidentally popped a hive cell. Small, bright red insects scurried out.
Kliks, realizing what he was observing, collapsed and fell to his knees. “I’m not a crier, man. I’ve been through Vietnam and I’ve seen a lot,” Kliks says. “But that just hit me so hard and I started to weep.”
His fear? The varroa mite was in Hawaii. Since it arrived in Florida in 1987, the pest had been hobbling the Mainland bee industry with reduced yields and also affecting any crop dependent on bees for pollination. The impact could be devastating to Hawaii farmers already saddled with the high cost of doing business here.
Kliks gathered some samples, sealed them in a Ziploc bag and returned to his home apiary in Manoa. He called the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and two representatives arrived within an hour and confirmed his finding.
Hawaii was one of the last places on Earth without the varroa mite. Visible to the naked eye but only the size of a pinhead, the crab-shaped varroa (scientific name varroa destructor Anderson and Trueman) feeds off the blood of the adult, larvae and pupae of the European honey bee, which is found in Hawaii. On adult bees, the mite can spread disease and pass from one bee to another, infesting other hives. If an infested hive is left untreated, colony death can take as little as six weeks.
After Kliks’ discovery, the agriculture department rushed out to survey wild and managed beehives for varroa and other bee pests. As of late January, surveys showed the Neighbor Islands remained mite free, but Oahu had mites from Nanakuli to Waimanalo, and everywhere in between. Out of 122 sampled wild and managed bee hives on Oahu, 93 hives, or 76 percent, contained mites. The widespread infestation indicated the mite had been here at least a year, probably longer.
Eradication was impossible. While managed hives could be treated, feral bee hives continue to allow the mite to spread. Several locations, including New Zealand, have attempted eradicating the parasite but failed. In infested areas, the mite has destroyed as much as 90 percent of the feral bee populations. The best way to stop the mite is (was) keeping it out.
Although the mite only attacks honey bees, it affects more than just honey. For example, if the mite reaches the Big Island, it could devastate a queen bee-rearing business that ships to all of North America and has estimated sales of $4 million. Up until now, bee farming markets worldwide have looked to the Big Island to provide disease-free queens. Certified organic honey would be imperiled, too, as most pest management requires pesticides.
But most importantly, pollinated-dependent (PD) crops – including tomatoes, cucumbers and melons – will experience losses, both in yield and quality. Bees also assist in pollinating coffee, macadamia nuts, citrus, avocado, mango and guava. The loss of feral hives could mean lowered production and quality in farms and in backyard gardens.
Preliminary estimates by the agriculture department foresee Hawaii’s agriculture industry losing between $42 million to $62 million from the loss of feral bees. As wild honey bees would no longer pollinate crops, farmers would have to hire managed bee colonies to sustain production. No pollination services currently exist in Hawaii.
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