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Isle beekeepers fear sting of "killer" imports

Honolulu Advertiser
Sunday, June 25, 2000

By Edwin Tanji
Advertiser Staff Writer

Already facing depressed prices for honey because of imports, Hawai'i beekeepers fear even more the imports that could destroy their industry: hive-killing pests, disease and hybrid strains of African honey bees.

"I don't want any imports. It scares me," said Rod Franks, a Kaua'i beekeeper who is one of Hawai'i's largest honey producers, with 1,800 hives.

Franks is particularly worried that an Africanized bee, sometimes called the "killer" bee, will get into Hawai'i and mate with a domestic honeybee, introducing the threat of severe attacks on animals and people.

Gus Rouse, whose Kona Queen Co. is the largest queen bee export business in Hawai'i, said the international General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has opened the United States to pests carried by bees raised in other countries.

"Through the rules of GATT, they have the right to ship bees through Honolulu, even if state law prohibits anyone from bringing a bee into Hawai'i," Rouse said. "We are concerned about that, but we have no control over the rules."

Possibly because of Hawai'i's isolation and the small size of its bee industry, the Islands have not been hit with the threats to honeybees that have appeared around the country.

The Southwest has been hit with hybrid Africanized honey bees that spread from South and Central America. The Africanized bee is quicker to defend its hive and tends to pursue intruders for longer distances while producing less honey and swarming more frequently.

Throughout the Mainland, bees are succumbing to diseases and pests that haven't appeared yet in Hawai'i. The most serious problems are the varroa mite and tracheal mite, which feed on bees, weaken worker bees, and can kill off a hive.

Michael Kliks, president of the Hawaii Beekeepers' Association, said the varroa mite was found in hives in New Zealand this spring, making Hawai'i one of the last places in the world that has not been infested. That makes Hawai'i-raised bees potentially more valuable, but there is an increased threat that some bee-killing pest will be introduced.

Kliks noted that GATT allows New Zealand to land bees in Hawai'i in shipments bound for the Mainland and Canada.

"We couldn't stop them from flying through Hawai'i when they didn't have the mites; I don't see that we can stop them from flying through Hawai'i when they're no worse than what's already on the Mainland," he said. "The shipments are sealed under import regulations, but an accidental introduction is always a possibility."

If Hawai'i's bees can be shielded from mites and disease, beekeepers see potential for growth in the industry, particularly in raising queen bees for export.

Lyle Wong, director of the state's plant industry division, said he is working with Hawai'i's beekeepers to address the multiple threats they face. He is meeting with some tomorrow to discuss the issues.

But the threat from New Zealand bees is "not our call," he said. "It's a federal decision on transit through Hawai'i, but the USDA asked our opinion."

State agricultural inspectors went to New Zealand to review the packaging methods and steps taken to prevent an accidental release, Wong said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service advises the state when there are flights with bees aboard.

But there are importation threats the state can't control. Bees could come in cargo - as in the thousands of Christmas trees brought to the Islands every December. Someone could simply pop a few bees into a pocket and fly in undetected.

Kona beekeeper Randle Brashear said there isn't much the government can do to prevent contamination of Hawaii's bees. "The government doesn't have the time, the resources and the money to do anything about it," he said.

But while the honey business in Hawai'i is small, it has the potential to develop a niche "Made in Hawai'i" market.

Kliks' Manoa Honey Co. is producing several premium honey products, including a "Beekeepers Reserve" that he collects from old hives where honey has "aged" for at least five years.

Honey producers on Kaua'i and the Big Island say they can sell their Hawai'i-made honeys for premium prices because of the "Made in Hawai'i" cachet. Chas Danbury said he processes his own Kauai

Island Honey, which allows him to charge $1 to $1.50 a pound, compared with the wholesale price of 50 to 60 cents.

At the Hawaiian Queen Co. in South Kona, owner Michael Krones, whose main business is raising queens for export, also produces a small amount of Hawaiian Queen organic honey from 'hi'a lehua and Christmas berry trees.

While Krones and other queen bee raisers would not reveal their earnings, advertisements in beekeeping magazines suggest healthy queens command prices ranging from $5 to $15 for a single bee, and climbing higher in March and April.

Agriculture specialist Tom Culliney said the queen bee export business is worth about $1 million a year for Hawai'i, and still doesn't meet the demand. By comparison, honey and beeswax sales in 1999 totaled just topped $500,000.

© COPYRIGHT 2000 The Honolulu Advertiser, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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