Minding the beeswax: dangers to bees can threaten you, too

By Teri Okita – bio | email

NORTH SHORE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - We've heard a lot about the decline of honeybees in recent years. Now, just as conservationists are trying to tackle what has become a global phenomenon, problems are surfacing right here in Hawaii with our own honeybees. And those problems, in turn, can affect you, the food you eat, and the products you buy.

Three insects - the varroa mite, the hive beetle, and the nosema parasite - weren't even in our islands until a few years ago. The pests are bad for bees and bad for business.

North Shore resident Anthony Maxfield kept honeybees as a hobby - until five years ago, when he turned the busy bees into a booming skincare business. "Now, it's a question of being able to fill the demand," says Maxfield, "which means I have to have those bees strong and healthy so they can produce the great wax and the honey."

But back in May, little black hive beetles started popping up. As Maxfield points them out to us, he explains, "They lay their eggs inside the brood comb and inside the honeycomb, and then, when the larvae hatch, thousands of larvae come out, and they just destroy the hive." That's meant big losses for Maxfield's business.

A healthy honeycomb looks bright yellow and crisp – with pure, sweet honey dripping and oozing from its sides. One with destructive hive beetles looks orange and crusty and produces little or no honey.

Then, there's the varroa mite - a minuscule, brown, tick-like looking bug - that attaches to bee larvae and weakens the larvae by sucking its blood. "We had decades in Hawaii without the varroa mite and how it got here in 2007 is anybody's guess," says Department of Agriculture bee expert (apiculture specialist), Danielle Downey.

We followed Downey as she inspected Maxfield's hives. Oahu and the Big Island have widespread cases of varroa mites and hive beetles, and Downey says the decline of bees should not be taken for granted.

"If you have a pest of a particular crop, it takes out a single crop. But if you affect honeybees, you affect a pollination of many commodities, so it can have far-reaching effects with all the fruits and nuts and vegetables that require pollination," Downey explains.

And while Maxfield hopes there's money in the honey, it's not the bottomline but bee survival he's most concerned about. "I just hate to see the bees being destroyed by the mites. I mean, you can't really put a value on that."

Downey says we'll never be able to eradicate the beetle and mite problem, but beekeepers can monitor and keep the pest levels down - so that their hives can still thrive. But without profound changes to the way humans manage the planet, experts say the bee decline will continue.

So, the next time someone tells you to "mind your own beeswax", tell them what happens in the hive doesn't necessarily stay in the hive.

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