A number of beekeepers are mad as hornets about what they view as the lack of federal and state support to prevent major losses in their industry — one that supports honey production in Hawaii and provides a large number of queen bees for colonies that pollinate crops on the mainland and in other countries.
"We know people are suffering terrible losses," said Cary Dizon, president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association, which represents honeybee keepers and hobbyists. "Some people have reported losing all of their hives."
Hawaii beekeepers said unofficial counts indicated that thousands of bee colonies in Hawaii have died off due to bad weather combined with the infestation of varroa mites, nosema spores and small hive beetles.
The exact numbers remain unknown because government officials are still conducting a survey, state agricultural spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi said.
"They … don’t know the extent of it," she said.
The last survey, published in March, reported honey production in 2009 was 950,000 pounds, 6 percent more than 2008, with a farm value of $1.5 million.
State officials have no statistics on what the effect, if any, has been on farmers relying on bee pollination to produce agricultural products.
Larry Jefts, a large-scale farmer on Oahu, said decline in honeybees is probably starting to affect some farmers, especially backyard gardeners.
"I believe that farmers may soon understand that their yields have been impacted already," he said. "The consumer may actually feel it down the road."
Jefts, whose bee colonies pollinate his truck farm produce, said he thinks that nine out of 10 wild hives have died on Oahu.
"Two out of three of my hives have died in the last year," he said.
Jefts, a major watermelon grower, said his farm yields have been unaffected because he’s been actively controlling the pests.
Richard Spiegel, owner of Volcano Island Honey Co. LLC, said he’s lost about 30 percent to 35 percent of his 150 to 200 bee colonies because of drought conditions combined with varroa mites and other infestations last year.
"We’re going forward … and hoping all the pieces fall together," said Spiegel, who provides organic honey for the high-end market.
Garnett Puett, owner of Captain Cook Honey Ltd., said he’s lost 50 percent of his 4,000 bee colonies mainly because of varroa mites. Puett said he has had difficulty seeking financial loan assistance from the state and federal government for his losses.
Saneishi said state agricultural officials do not compile statistics on the production of queen bees in Hawaii, because there are so few businesses engaged in raising them that the information might be proprietary.
Kona Queen Hawaii manager Nancy Esco, who operates a business raising queen bees for the U.S. and Canadian markets, said fighting new pests has been challenging.
The varroa mite was first detected in wild bee colonies on Oahu in 2007 and was found on the Big Island in 2009, the state said.
The small hive beetle was found on the Big Island about a year ago, according to the state.
Michael Kliks, president of the statewide Hawaii Beekeepers Association, said that for several years the state has failed to have the qualified staff necessary to document the destruction of bee colonies at various businesses, resulting in a lack of documentation that would enable beekeepers to receive federal emergency funds.
Kliks said beekeepers aren’t getting the state and federal funding necessary to stem the problem. He said the crisis could be far-reaching because it affects agricultural businesses that rely on bees to pollinate their crops.
"The way this is happening is not right," he said. "It’s going to end in disaster. It’s almost too late."
The Big Island Beekeepers Association’s Dizon said the lack of information has prompted her association to conduct a survey among association members about the losses.
"We plan to use this information to bring public attention to the present crisis and hopefully get support for supplies and equipment needed to replace lost colonies," she said.
Neil Reimers, manager of the state Department of Agriculture’s Plant Pest Control Branch, said that until the newspaper’s call, he had not heard complaints from beekeepers about the lack of a state specialist to document bee losses.
Reimers said the state has difficulty collecting information about the beekeeping industry because, unlike some states, Hawaii does not require beekeepers to be registered or certified. Reimers said a qualified bee specialist was hired with federal funds late last year and the state intends to hire a planner to work with beekeepers and a technician to work with the bee specialist.