Rob Parsons

Bee Aware

Organic farmer, beekeeper to give series of public talks

by Rob Parsons

September 04, 2008

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen to testimony at a meeting of the Commission for Water Resource Management.

A bee must visit 250,000 flowers to make
1/12 of a tablespoon of honey.

When Vincent Mina found a colony of honeybees had taken up residence in the water meter box of his Wailuku home, he had no idea it would lead to a serendipitous meeting of the minds. Mina, an organic farmer with Kahanu `Aina Farms, called beekeeper Dennis Morihiro to remove the swarm of bees. The discussions that ensued led them to embark on a series of educational presentations on the relationship of honeybees to the environment, and vice versa.

Mina is inquisitive by nature and has a history of sharing vital information with the community. He is the founder and head of the non-profit Maui Aloha `Aina Association (MA`A), a sustainable farming organization that has sponsored the Body & Soil Conference yearly since 2001. The annual event brings in nationally renowned experts on soil science, nutrition, gardening and related topics. Mina energetically advocates that healthy soil and farming practices lead to nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, which in turn bring about health and vitality to those who choose to eat well.

Talking with Morihiro, who has managed Tropical Apiary Products of Maui for more than 25 years, Mina quickly saw he was in the presence of someone with specialized knowledge, someone who has observed gradual, distressing shifts in the ecosystems of Maui. Moreover, Morihiro told Mina that when he brought his observations to government leaders, they often fell upon deaf ears.

I sat with Morihiro and Mina at a table in Border's, with afternoon coffee in front of us. Morihiro, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "Keep the Hive Alive" in yellow and black letters, shared half of his toasted bagel with me and we began to chat about his beekeeping business.

I reminded him that I had found him in the yellow pages some 20 years ago, when a swarm of honeybees took up residence in the kitchen wall of the century old home I lived in, behind the Makawao library. We called Morihiro to come relocate the colony, as poisoning wasn't a viable option for us.

Morihiro showed up, donned his protective suit and plugged in a homemade vacuum. I recalled that he first puffed some smoke into the small hole in the exterior wall, using a bellows-like device. This served to stun or sedate the bees. I asked him what he used to smoke the bees before collecting them.

"I use pine needles, macadamia nut hulls, dry grass, eucalyptus chips," said Morihiro, "whatever I have. The smoke confuses the bees because they depend on their sense of smell.

"Inside the hive is dark," he continued, "so everything is smell and touch. The queen gives off pheromones to keep the workers committed to their tasks. If she starts to give off less pheromones, the workers start to make `queen cells' to raise a new queen."

Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar employees listen to testimony at a meeting of the Commission for Water Resource Management.

Let it bee: Morihiro has hundreds
of hives all over the island.

Morihiro explains that a queen can live from two to three years, while worker bees have an average life cycle of only 39 days. When a queen gets older, scout bees will go out and find another location for a hive. The old queen won't move on until a new queen has mated, and then she can lead as many as 10,000-20,000 bees to swarm to a new location.

"They need a dry location," he said, "where they can regulate the temperature. The larvae need to be raised at 91 degrees. For three days the larvae are fed nothing but royal jelly by the nurse bees."

Morihiro said that if not enough pollen is collected to make the larval food, "Then the nurse bees start to cannibalize the larvae to keep the hive alive."

Morihiro has hundreds of hives in various locations on Maui, and has carefully witnessed changes in nature that have altered the viability of his bee colonies. In the early 1980s, he kept 300 hives in the Waiehu region, around the time when Wailuku Sugar planted their acreage in young macadamia nut trees and hundreds of acres were cleared for the Waiehu Heights subdivision.

With natural windbreaks cleared for housing, the trade winds took their toll on the upslope regions. Soon, half of Morihiro's hives were lost, due to less pollen from less flowers and the overall drying effect of the winds on the undergrowth of the West Maui Mountains. He says he has watched over the years as a few isolated brown spots in the hills above Waiehu have grown into a large region, all the way up to the cloud line where tree trunks can now be seen where once a green forest canopy existed.

"Trees break up the wind into eddies like pebbles in a stream," said Morihiro. "Too many rooftops means the wind comes in unabated. More windbreaks are what's needed."

Morihiro believes that the changes in the 2-mile strip stretching along Maui's windward coast from Waiehu to Hana are critical to the climate on the rest of the island. As ecosystems and microclimates are altered, there are corresponding changes in neighboring vegetation, insect populations and diversity of flowering plants for bee foraging. He related that dandelions and nut weed are all but gone in the Wailuku area and that non-native insects and diseases have ravaged both the wiliwili and rose apple trees.

Where there used to be a spring, summer and fall honey flow in the Waiehu region, Morihiro is now only able to extract honey in the fall. He related that he used to start raising queens in March but now has to wait until May. Only 30 of 700 queens that he raised last year successfully mated.

"The bee is totally dependent upon the environment," Morihiro said. "They are totally dependent upon the nectar and honey. Bees can't improve the environment, they can only maintain what is failing."

In a sense, they are a canary in the coalmine, Mina said. He believes that bees need biodiversity to be successful, as kiawe nectar alone, for instance, is not nutritionally sufficient for the bees to thrive.

Worldwide, honeybees are facing a mysterious malady called Colony Collapse Disorder. Leading suspects include: cellular telephone proliferation, which may affect bees' navigational abilities; genetically modified crops, which could alter bees' nutritional sources in yet undetermined ways; and pesticides. The disorder has had widespread impacts on the Western honeybee across Europe and North America and possible cases have also been reported in Taiwan.

In Hawaii, the discovery of the varroa mite in an Oahu bee colony sent shockwaves across the state. In Cheryl Ambrozic's 2007 cover story for Maui Time Weekly, "To Bee, or Not to Bee," Morihiro exclaimed, "Looks like we're screwed." The parasitic mites, about the size of a pinhead, can weaken adult bees and also attack larvae. As the mites have a 10 day reproductive cycle, and the bees have no instinctive grooming behavior to repel them, an infested colony rapidly leads to the death of the hive.

Many raised the concern that the Hawaii Superferry could transport an infected bee from Oahu to Maui, and the varroa mite infestation could quickly endanger honeybees island-wide. Inspections have turned up hundreds of bees on car radiators, both dead and alive. To date, Maui has avoided the unwanted arrival of this tiny, destructive arachnid.

But the Big Island has not been so fortunate. Two weeks ago, West Hawaii Today reported that Department of Agriculture (DOA) traps detected varroa mites on bees caught near the Hilo Seaside Hotel. Rapid response has been deployed, with DOA setting more traps, sampling commercial and feral hives, distributing miticides to place in infected colonies and asking the public's help in identifying feral hives within a 5-mile radius so they can be destroyed.

Morihiro is skeptical-and concerned. "You can't search a 5-mile radius, no way," he said. "They're not going to find all the feral colonies, which could be in a tree, a building, a crack in the lava, anywhere." The Big Island is the state's leading producer of honey, with an annual production of about 1 million pounds.

Morihiro's knowledge of his trade is fascinating. He says that a bee only collects pollen and honey in the last two weeks of its 39-day life cycle. A quarter million flowers must be visited to produce just a 12th of a teaspoon of honey. Bees will sometimes bring pine sap to the hive to make propolis, because of its anti-fungal properties.

Mina and MA`A are bringing Morihiro's wisdom to four venues over the next month, sharing his knowledge with Maui's community. These unique educational opportunities should allow for a healthy, vital cross-pollination of ideas and actions.