The Aptly Named Varroa Destructor
Do you know that 1/3 of all the food you eat is pollinated by bees? The decimation of bee colonies is a threat to food production in Hawaii. In Hawaii we do not have the disappearance of bees (Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD), but we now have the devastating and aptly named varroa destructor, commonly known as the varroa mite.
The varroa mite is a parasite that attacks honey bee adults, larvae, and pupae. The varroa mite has been know to destroy up to 90% of wild hives and beekeepers can easily lose all or a majority of their managed hives. Until recently, Hawaii and Australia were the only remaining varroa free places in the world. The varroa mite was found on Oahu in 2007, unfortunately this did not result in quick and aggressive action by the private or government sector. As a result, the mite has now been found in hives on the Big Island.
The beekeeping industry in Hawaii is a $4 million per year industry, with the majority of that being on the Big Island. Hawaii’s beekeepers produce both honey and queen bees. But Hawaii’s beekeeping industry affects a much larger industry. The Kona Coast of Hawaii produces approx. 400,000 varroa free queens per year, or 20% of the nation’s needs. Each queen bee heads up a colony of about 45,000 pollinating foragers that fly and pollinate about 8,000 acres around its hive. Hawaii’s queen producers supply many of the nation’s largest beekeepers with mite-free queens whose colonies pollinate the food crops in North America.
Not Just a Honey Problem, It is a Food Problem
The varroa mite is not just a beekeeper’s problem, it is a food production problem that will affect commercial farms as well as the backyard gardener. The State Department of Agriculture estimates that Hawaii’s agricultural industry will lose $42 – $62 million from the loss of feral bees. When wild honey bees no longer pollinate crops, farmers will have to hire managed bee colonies to sustain production, if managed hives are available. Since there is a ban on importation of bees to Hawaii, if the bees die out replenishing managed hives may present an unanticipated problem. Pollinated-dependent crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and melons will experience losses in both quality and quantity. Bees also assist in pollinating coffee, macadamia nuts, citrus, avocado, and guava. The loss of wild hives will likely mean lower production and quality in farms and private gardens and fruit trees.
Living with Varroa in Hawaii
Volcano Island Honey Company, as a certified organic apiary has been researching ways to treat the varroa mite in hives and still remain certified organic. (Just to be clear Volcano Island Honey does not have varroa in its hives.) The company has developed an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy that would use non-chemical methods such as screened bottom boards, brood cycle disruption and possibly drone brood removal first and then, if necessary, so called “soft-chemicals” such as formic acid.
Beekeepers on the U.S. mainland and other places in the world have been managing varroa for over 20 years, but Hawaii’s beekeepers have not had the varroa mite and this presents some special challenges. Managing the hives with the varroa mite is much more labor intensive and the treatments are expensive, this is not an expense that Hawaii’s beekeepers anticipated. In addition, many of the beekeepers in Hawaii just do not have experience with treating hives for varroa and will need to learn what works and what does not through experience- which could add up to expensive trial and error. To compound the challenge- many of the soft-chemical treatments such as formic acid and thymol have not been tested in European honeybee hives in a year round, tropical climate like Hawaii. Therefore, accurate information on application for Hawaii’s climate is not readily available. The University of Hawaii has ramped up its Bee Project in order to provide Hawaii’s beekeepers with localized information on application.
Are Bees the Canary in the Coalmine?
Until the disappearance of bees (Colony Collapse Disorder of CCD) began attracting national media attention, most people probably never thought about the important role that bees play in our food production. Unfortunately, the majority of our food comes from industrial food production systems and the bees that pollinate the food crops have been industrialized as well. Thousands of bee hives are trucked across the country each year to pollinate tree crops, primarily large, chemically fertilized and pesticide laden mono-cropping nut and fruit orchards.
Volcano Island Honey Company feels that the bees are the “canary in the coal mine” of the condition of our global environment. When the bees start disappearing, that is an obvious signal that our environment is out of balance. The cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has not yet been found, but we feel that the decimation and disappearance of bees is indicative of the many errors of our ways- from industrial agricultural practices to over consumption.
What You Can Do for Hawaii’s Bees
The effort to combat the varroa mite in Hawaii is woefully under funded. The Hawaii State Department of Agriculture, which is already handling more agricultural pests than it has time and staff for, only has about $370,000 to address the varroa problem statewide. Hawaii’s congressional delegation has secured another $469,000 for Fiscal Year 2010, but this is only a drop in the bucket.
A multi-stakeholder group comprised of beekeepers, the agricultural industry, University of Hawaii, Hawaii Department of Agriculture, USDA and others has formed to try to collectively address the varroa problem (disclosure- the writer of this article has been retained as the facilitator/coordinator of this group).
The public can make a tax deductible donation to the effort to help the bees on the Big Island. Checks should be made out to The Kohala Center, reference Varroa in the memo, and mail to:
The Kohala Center
Att: Cortney Hoffman
P.O. Box 437462
Kamuela, Hawai‘i 96743
You can also learn about beekeeping and keep a hive in your own backyard! Volcano Island Honey Company owner Richard Spiegel will be having a beginning beekeeping class in October.
Posted by Andrea Dean