Hawaii’s buzzing queen bee industry

Ideal conditions for bee mating make the islands a desirable place to raise queens.

Bee sex is simultaneously a delicate and violent act. Drone bees mate with the queen bee in mid flight, and once the semen is deposited, the drones are eviscerated and die shortly after, their one purpose in life complete. The queen bee, after mating with up to 20 drone bees, goes back to her hive and spends the rest of her days laying eggs and fertilizing them with the sperm stored from that one amorous flight. The weather conditions have to be just right for mating to happen: sunny, little wind, temperatures between 69 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Requirements that Kona on Hawaii Island fulfills almost year-round, which is why it’s home to one of the country’s largest queen bee producers.  

According to 2012 estimates by the Hawaii Apiary Program, Hawaii exports $10 million a year in queen bees, supplying about 25% of the queen bees in the US and 75% in Canada. Compare that to honey production, at $3.1 million a year. Queen bees are the heart of the hive. The queen regulates hive behaviors and produces eggs to maintain the colony’s population. She can live for a year or more, whereas the worker bees have life spans as short as five weeks, for they are, well, busy bees, constructing combs, feeding and caring for the brood and queen, cleaning and guarding the hive, regulating nest temperature, foraging for nectar, pollen and water. The Mainland needs Hawaii’s queen bees.    

“Hawaii is one of the only places that is able to have mated queens ready to go year-round,” says Mitra Heffron, a plant pest control technician at the Hawaii Apiary Program. In the spring especially, “beekeepers on the Mainland and Canada need to build their colonies quickly to be ready for pollination season as well as other general beekeeping industries.” 

On the Mainland, the big bee event is almond season. According to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, California has about 750,000 acres of almonds, and each acre needs two colonies for pollination. Since California doesn’t have that many bees, they are trucked in from all over the country. It’s estimated that 50 percent of the bees in the United States are brought into California to pollinate the almonds.  

Photo: Ronit Fahl

 In addition, says Heffron, “when natural disasters strike, such as severe flooding which has washed away colonies, beekeepers who need to quickly replenish their bee stock will often order queen bees from Hawaii.”  

Hawaii bees are also in demand because the Islands don’t have the more aggressive Africanized bees; Hawaii’s queen bee producers export the gentler Italian and Carniolan bees. “As Africanized bees continue to spread and migrate in the mainland, there might also be higher demands for European stock with gentle demeanor to help dilute any Africanized genetics in an area [or] to maintain European genetics,” says Heffron.  

Currently, there are about 10 queen bee producers in the state, with the majority on Hawaii Island. Colonies undergo inspections by the Hawaii Apiary Program for small hive beetles, varroa mites, and European and American foulbrood diseases. Though Hawaii’s borders have been closed to bee imports since 1908 to prevent the infiltration of pests and diseases, they have found a way to the Islands (for now, the varroa mite exists only on Oahu and Hawaii Island).  

Here’s a look at three of the queen bee producers in Hawaii that help keep the country’s hives going and its orchards pollinated.  

Kona Queen Hawaii 

A queen bee shipping cage. 
Photo: Ronit Fahl

“Hawaii is the premier place to raise queens,” says Kelly O’Day, president of US Honeybee LLC. “Kona has very consistent weather, which allows us to mate queens at a high level of quality and at large volumes.” In 2016, US Honeybee purchased Kona Queen Hawaii, which started in 1976 and is the longest-running commercial queen producer in Hawaii, and one of the largest queen producers in the world. 

Kelly O’Day, beekeeper and president of US Honeybee LLC, which owns Kona Queen Hawaii. 
Photo: Ronit Fahl

O’Day used to be a migratory beekeeper, one of the many beekeepers who would truck their bees across the country for the California almond pollination season. Although he was based in Michigan, he was often on the road, sending his bees to Florida during the winter to forage and get healthy and strong, before trucking them to California for almond pollination, and then back to Michigan during the summer months for the honey crop. He started looking into raising queen bees in Hawaii for a lifestyle that would allow him more time with his family and found that Kona Queen was selling.  

Raising queen bees, however, is much more complicated than just raising honeybees. It requires maintaining different kinds of colonies: support colonies as well as colonies for producing drones and mating the queens. O’Day declined to share information about how many colonies and queen bees he sells to the Mainland and Canada, only that it requires “several thousand” colonies to run the whole operation.  

Some of Kona Queen Hawaii’s colonies.
Photo: Ronit Fahl

He emphasizes the necessity of intensive management. He installs new queens in the hives each year. “Young, healthy queens create a vigorous, well-populated colony which can help take care of itself a lot better, help control the small hive beetle and out-reproduce the varroa mite,” he says. Also, he’s found that Hawaii’s later introduction of parasites and pathogens means the company has been able to learn from Mainland beekeepers on how to deal with the diseases. “It’s allowed us to step up the management of the hives,” he says. “The more intensively you manage your bees, the less chance you have of experiencing colony collapse.” But it’s not just management of his own bees, but also the bees next door. “When you’re a beekeeper, your neighbors are definitely a factor. You want good, clean bees.” The mites and beetles can easily jump from one hive to another. Which is why O’Day says the Hawaii Apiary Program is essential. The program acts a resource for new beekeepers, teaching them how to control parasites. Left unchecked, the parasites and pathogens “could put the bees at high risk and damage, if not destroy the entire industry on the island,” he says. And since it’s estimated that a third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees, we all need good, clean bees.  


Hawaii Guerrilla Apiaries 

John Pascual grafts bee larvae from a frame into queen cell cups. 
Photo: Ronit Fahl

While the biggest queen producers are in Kona, smaller queen breeders also exist in Hilo, Kauai and Oahu. Hawaii Guerrilla Apiaries is one of the newer ones. John Pascual worked for Kona Queen for eight years before he left two and a half years ago to begin his own queen-rearing business in Hilo. He runs about 1,000 queen hives, and during the peak season, sells around 500 to 800 queens a month, shipping them to the Mainland via the US Postal Service. Queen bee producers buy small wooden cages, about 3 inches by 1 inch, and place the queen bee inside, along with a few worker bees to tend to her, and some sugar and water. The cages are placed in a vented box made specifically for shipping queens, and then it all just goes through the regular mail. “The postal workers have seen bees in a box before,” says Pascual. 

Carefully handling a queen bee.
Photo: Ronit Fahl

He’s drawn to working with bees because “beehives, they are kind of like a mystery novel,” he says. “If something has gone wrong, you go into the hive and read the signs, and it’ll point you in the right direction.” The signs might be a declined population, dwindling carbohydrates and protein in the hive, brood patterns that start “getting uglier and uglier,” sickly larvae, and sporadic eggs that “are not as nicely laid out anymore.” These could point to a bad queen, perhaps one that has run out of drone semen. What usually happens in that instance, the bees “will decide the right time to try and supersede her and make another young, brand new queen,” he says. “Bees, they are their own little world. And once you are able to get into them, and see how they work, it’s very rewarding to discover their infrastructure, their ecosystem.” 

A frame of 10-day-old queen cells.
Photo: Ronit Fahl

He admits that Hilo isn’t as ideal as Kona to raise queens because of the frequency of rain. But that same rain makes Hilo ideal for honey production. The lushness in environment translates into “some really long and strong nectar flows,” says Pascual. He places his hives everywhere from Pahala to Kau, from Kalapana to Honokaa. Unlike the larger queen producers who sell most of their honey to honey packers, Pascual markets his own honey, specializing in single-flower varietals including lehua, macadamia nut, and kiawe. 

The hive entrance of one of Hawaii Guerrilla Apiaries’ queen colonies.
Photo: Ronit Fahl

Even in spite of the rain, however, he says “because we have tropical weather, we’re able to get these queens mated really well. There is a huge demand by the continental US, and Hawaii is one of the more close to perfect places on the earth to breed queens. 

Olivarez Honey Bees 

Ray Olivarez and his son, Ryan.
Photo courtesy: Olivarez Honey Bees

“What we did 10 years ago would put us out of business today,” says Ray Olivarez of Olivarez Honey Bees (OHB). “It’s changed that much. You have to be more in tune with the bees. They need help. That’s why we’re called beekeepers.” OHB is the only company in the U.S. that raises queens in Hawaii (in Kona on Hawaii Island) and the Mainland (in northern California).  

Olivarez grew up in a beekeeping family and has run OHB for 30 years. He expanded his queen rearing operations to Hawaii 11 years ago, when the varroa mite (which had already devastated California colonies) and the small hive beetle (which aren’t a problem in northern California but are elsewhere) had not yet arrived in the Islands. Unfortunately, the pests arrived soon after. “Bees used to take care of themselves,” says Olivarez. Now, he finds the bees need tending 365 days a year to ward against diseases and pests. But it’s working: While the US Department of Agriculture reported that in 2016, colony losses ranged from 11 to 25 percent (with higher losses in the winter months), Olivarez says his losses hover around 8 percent.  

He checks his hives constantly. “We’re in them a lot more than most people,” he says. “We keep attrition low. When a hive dies in the field, or a queen dies, we restock that hive that day.” OHB has a full time IT director who scales the weight gain and weight loss of bees out in the field. Healthy hives are good honey producers and collect a lot of pollen. The theory is, just as with humans, “the better their diet, the healthier their immune system, and the less susceptible the bees are to viruses and pathogens,” Olivarez says.  

OHB maintains about 16,000 hives in California and 2,000 in Hawaii. OHB’s own operation takes about 18,000 to 19,000 queen bees a year, and he sells about 150,000 from his California operation and up to 90,000 from Hawaii annually. 

A bee hive at Olivarez Honey Bees.
Photo courtesy: Olivarez Honey Bees

Despite the constant battle against pests and diseases, raising queens in Hawaii is still advantageous for OHB. “Hawaii is critical to us,” says Olivarez. “One of the biggest reasons we went to Hawaii was because we could raise queens year-round and work on our breeding stock that could be resistant to the varroa mite. We’re hoping to accelerate this selection of mite resistant bees. Honeybees, they’ve been around 100 million years, they don’t change overnight. We’ve already selected for traits like hygienic behavior and we work with some researchers in Canada. There are bees out there that show resistance to the environment—they metabolize chemicals easier and are hardier against the mites. It’s our job as queen producers to improve the stock.”  

OHB’s hives in Hawaii are distributed throughout coffee and other farms around Kona, which is a win-win for the beekeepers and farmers. The bees are fed; the crops get pollinated. Checking in on the bees constantly across different areas means the beekeepers develop an intimate knowledge of the landscape. “If you ever want to know what’s going on in the environment around you, ask a beekeeper,” says Olivarez. “We have to determine what they need. If there’s a drought we have to feed them a little more. We know when the Christmas berry and ohia and avocadoes and the coffee trees will flower. You gotta be aware of the environment, of what’s available for the bees. You have to have a passion for the bees to raise the bees.”  

Categories: Hawaiʻi Farm and Food