It's an overcast day on the Big Island's Hamakua coast. Jenny Bach is kneeling near an A-frame bee hive. Gazing through the hive's glass window she exudes an air of pride usually reserved for a mother speaking proudly of her children, "Look at them, they're working so hard. This hive is doing really good."
The hive's health isn't to be taken for granted since flourishing hives and healthy bees have been at a constant decline in the wake of the introduction of two invasive species in 2008: the Varroa mite, a tiny insect that transfers viruses while feeding on honey bee larvae and adult bee blood; and the small hive beetle, which destroys colonies while contaminating the honey, first seen on O'ahu in 2007, then migrating to the Big Island a year later.
Bach, better known as "Jenny Bee," is the founder and co-owner of Bee Love Apiaries, a 15-acre sustainable and holistic beekeeping sanctuary on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea, which doubles as a home for her and her husband, Jio Rosenberg. Bach holds a degree in biology from the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and South African Rosenberg is a former stock trader. But it's their love for bees that occupies them full-time as beekeepers and outreach workers with Big Island children and farmers interested in beekeeping.
At the age of 21 Bach received her first invite into a hive. "It was as if the bees injected a magic potion into me. I began to have reoccurring dreams, which allowed me to understand them. From that moment on, I knew I was hooked," she recalls, some ten years later, relaxing on the lanai as she mixes a cup of tea with her homegrown honey and homemade almond milk. "Bees find their keeper, and I was put under a spell."
Performing residential hive removal got her off and running in the bee business, but soon she had developed a vision and mission that evolved into Bee Love. Now the focus is set on education and finding better ways to keep bees living long term with genetic diversity.
"The bees are really an indicator of our food system. A few years ago there was an estimated 800,000 feral hives and today we rarely see any," she says. "But, it's not a doomsday scenario. We want bees that are survivors. For example, we've noticed that some bees will pull out the mite and the larvae it's feeding on."
Enhancing the length and quality of bees' lives could possibly be one of the most important efforts to ensure higher agricultural yields, especially with Hawai'i's present effort to eat local. According to Bach, about 30 percent or more of our food is dependent on honeybees. And by supporting honeybees we support local agriculture beyond simply honey production.
However, in the last four years the Varroa mite and hive beetle have taken a devastating toll on the bees, which historically flourished thanks to the Big Island's range of microclimates—eleven out of the world's thirteen microclimates are found on the Big Island. These varying microclimates and the diversity of flora found within them produces a vast array of nectar sources, and it's the multiple nectar sources that creates different types of honey, each with different flavors, scents and consistencies.
"Honey is just dehydrated flower nectar," says Whendi Grad of Big Island Bees, a family run business in South Kona. She says it's the genetic make up of different nectars that creates honey with different consistencies. The Big Island's famous lehua honey is thick and crystallized from the Puna and Hamakua areas where the vibrant blossoms of 'ohi'a are abundant. Other common Big Island honeys include macadamia nut, kiawe from a small portion of Kona, eucalyptus honey from Na'alehu and Hamakua, and wilelaiki (Christmasberry) honey.
Big Island Bees has been making artisan honey since 1971. Grad's husband, Garnett Puett is a fourth generation beekeeper. His honey roots date back to a time when his great grandfather who bred queen bees lost an entire field of hives to arson when he voted for integration in Georgia. The family remained in the bee business and discovered that Hawai'i was a perfect place to keep bees in the 1960s.
While the Big Island Bee family also fights for the future of bees, they've made a name as producers of award winning artisan, single nectar honeys distributed worldwide. "We focus on macadamia nut, wilelaiki and lehua honey," says Whendi. Each nectar flourishes at different times of the year.
Although Big Island Bees remains the largest producer of honey in the state, they too have suffered in the last four years. "Since the mites arrived, we've lost nearly 50 percent of our honey production," Whendi shares. Like Bach, she shares the notion of the overall importance of bees. "Humans and bees really have a symbiotic relationship. People want bees on the land for pollination and bees need people to help them out."
Gone are the days when hives on farms or residential property could be left alone for a month at a time. "It's vital to check the hives every single day—give them water, check nectar availability and move them to a new nectar source if necessary," says Whendi Grad. "Now, you really have to be a beekeeper."
Her husband Garnett leaves for his rounds at 7:30 a.m. to check on each of Big Island Bee's 2,500 hives, which are scattered across private lands. The beekeepers have agreements with landowners to rotate the hives according to the nectar season.
It's inside the hives where the magic happens. Hawaiian worker bees (females) have a life span of up to three months, yet queens live for as long as five years. Workers fly around gathering nectar, which is then broken down in the bee's two stomachs by enzymes before it's regurgitated back in the hive. The females mix it up with their wings and tongues, removing about 70 percent of the moisture. And just like that, the finished product is honey.
The honey is then placed in a hexagonal cell made of wax, known as the honeycomb. Bach says wax is simply a product that bees sweat out from their pores before being turned into a hexagon, a creation of which humans are still theorizing on how it's formed. Bach quips, "It looks like they're meditating while they do it." When the honey is complete, bees seal the honey into the cell with a thin layer of wax.
"The females do all of the work and find the nectar. Meanwhile, the queens fly around mating with various drones. She stores the semen in her body and can fertilize her eggs with it at a later time," explains Bach. All worker bees are females born from fertilized eggs. Males, or drones, are born from unfertilized eggs, totaling only two percent of nearly 2,000 eggs laid each day, and are exact replicas of the queen.
With a family rooted in honey production, it's no surprise that Whendi Grad holds historic knowledge of the honeybee. She says that Hippocrates valued honey as a medicine and the Mayans had a special god for beekeeping, ancient Egyptians reserved honey for the wealthy and the Norse god Odin attributed his strength and wisdom to the mystical powers of honey. The honeybee was a symbol of purity to the early Christians and other cultures, including Celts and Slavs. Jews thought of honey as a food for the gods, while mead (honey wine) was a favored drink of mortals. Luckily for us mortals living in paradise, we have our own source of Hawaiian ambrosia.