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A Busy Little Parasite

Pinhead-sized bee mite threatens the state's $500 million agriculture industry

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Varroa Destructor feeds off the blood of the European honey bee that is found in Hawaii and spreads viruses, causing deformities, and, if left untreated, eventual colony collapse.


10,000 bee colonies produced 930,000 pounds of honey in 2006, a total farm value of $1.1 million. Certified organic honey may end because most pest management programs use pesticides.


The state’s four producers of queen bees are located on the Big Island, and they’ll no longer be able to tout “mite-free queens.” Major suppliers to the Mainland and certified to ship to Canada, their annual sales are estimated at $4 million.


The nearly 2,000 acres of pollinator-dependent crops on Oahu — including cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, papaya and guava — would be affected. Preliminary estimates foresee a loss in farm gate value of $10 million to $15 million annually on Oahu. Statewide, that number can range from $42 million to $62 million

Since it is illegal to import bees into Hawaii, a restocking program would need to be established. The agriculture department estimates such a program would cost $1.5 million just for startup. What’s more, the mite could set off a chain reaction of indirect costs. With lower crop yields, farm jobs would be lost and produce prices would go up.

The Legislature set aside $650,000 in an emergency appropriation at the end of the 2007 session to control and treat the varroa infestation. In early January, at an informational hearing regarding invasive species before the Senate’s Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, the agriculture department did not request more money. “They seem to indicate that the initial $650,000 was enough to get them through the year,” says Sen. Jill Tokuda, D-Kaneohe, Kailua, Enchanted Lake, and committee chair. “But my sense is that, if we’re going to really contain the spread of varroa, we need to be aggressive and we need to take swift, quick action and that’s going to cost more than $650,000 to do that.”

But for the agriculture department, that isn’t the problem. “We’ve got a lot of money, there’s no question about that. Problem is, we don’t have a lot of people to do the work,” says Neil Reimer, plant pest control branch manager at the agriculture department. He has one person in his department working full time on varroa alone. Reimer explains that approximately 20 new pests are introduced to the Islands every year, and five of them are significant, like varroa. “I don’t want to be pulling them off other projects,” Reimer says. “Otherwise, every time you get another pest, [you’re] pulling everyone off of one project and putting them on a new project, and that doesn’t help.”

On Aug. 28, 2007, the agriculture department enacted an interim rule outlawing the movement of live or dead honey bees and used honey bee equipment between islands. The rule is valid for one year, and the Plant Quarantine Branch is looking to make it permanent. A 1-mile buffer zone has been created around all harbors and ports, physically removing all beehives from the area. It is only done by visual inspections, but the agriculture department is researching using baits. Baits would be most effective, but environmental concerns include killing unintended insects and animals. “We’re moving in that direction but it’s not easy to remove them from the ports,” Reimer says. “Because right now, there are still bees at the port, there’s no question. We’re working on it but they’re still out there.”

The agriculture department also has been equipping beekeepers with more weapons. At the time of varroa’s discovery, only the pesticide Apistan was licensed for use in Hawaii. Now, three others have been licensed with a fourth under way. The department also supplies beekeepers with screened bottom boards to catch and detect mites.

Any hives with mites on the mite-free islands will be destroyed, which has left many beekeepers worried. The agriculture department, however, will not be destroying hives without compensation: $125,000 has been allotted toward a reimbursement program. But what constitutes a fair price for voluntarily destroying beehives varies among beekeepers. Today, though, that is just one of the many complex questions facing Hawaii bee keepers and farmers.

“It changed our lives, all of our lives,” Kliks says. “It’ll never go back to the way it was.”

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