Posted on October 13, 2009.
Sydney Ross Singer
In case you haven’t heard the buzz, the honey bee in Hawaii is gravely threatened by a newly introduced parasite, the varroa mite, which can wipe out our bee population within a few years, and is spreading across the state.
The question is, should we save the honey bees, or is the mite doing us a favor?
If you ask residents, farmers, and beekeepers, the honey bee is a blessing in Hawaii. They provide delicious honey, they help pollinate all sorts of fruit trees and crops, and they are interesting creatures to raise as a hobby. For most people, our islands would surely be less sweet without honey bees.
On the other hand, if you ask some conservationists who only value “native” species and wish to eradicate introduced ones, the honey bee is an invasive species curse in Hawaii. They compete with native pollinators, and they pollinate alien plant species that are encroaching on native forests. For these people, conservation would best be served by the eradication of the honey bee.
Unfortunately, the Hawaii government holds both of these opinions. And this spells doom for the honey bee.
According to Lyle Wong of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (DOA), who is leading efforts on the Big Island to stem the spread of the varroa mite, the Hawaii government is not sure whether to regard the honey bee as a friend or foe (personal communication).
The DOA acknowledges the importance of the honey bee in agriculture, and that most farmers rely on feral, or wild, honey bees to pollinate their crops. On the other hand, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), which works closely with the DOA, considers the honey bee as an invasive species, and thinks Hawaii would be better off without them.
This ambivalence towards the honey bee is also reflected in the fact that the DOA lists the honey bee as an agricultural pest for control or eradication. hawaii.gov/hdoa/admin-rules/subtitle-6-division-of-plant-industry/AR-69A.pdf
Add to this the fact that the varroa mite is considered a form of biocontrol against wild honey bees. www.columbia.edu/itc/cerc/danoff-burg/invasion_bio/inv_spp_summ/varroa_destructor.html
This is from a wikipedia entry: As an invasive species, feral honey bees have become a significant environmental problem in places where they are not native. Imported bees may compete with and displace native bees and birds, and may also promote the reproduction of invasive plants that native pollinators do not visit. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_honey_bee
The loss of the honey bee will accomplish what the DOA and DLNR, along with the US Forest Service, had in mind for strawberry guava biocontrol. They proposed releasing an alien scale insect to attack the strawberry guava to reduce its fruit production in order to slow its spread in the forests. That proposal has been made moot by the introduction of the varroa mite. The loss of honey bees mean less strawberry guava fruit. No need for the scale now that the mite is here.
The announcement of the invasion of the varroa mite on the Big Island came two weeks after the Hawaii County Council chastised the federal and state governments for their biocontrol plan for strawberry guava. Some people believe the varroa mite could have been secretly released by zealous biocontrol proponents who wish to see the demise of the honey bee in order to reduce the spread of guava, strawberry guava, and other “weed” trees. Since the scale insect release plan was being attacked, could the deliberate release of the varroa mite on the Big Island have been “Plan Bee”?
Whether it happened by design or through incompetence, the varroa mite was not stopped in Hilo, where it was first discovered. Now, the mite is expected to infest the entire Big Island, as it has Oahu.
Meanwhile, the DOA is killing healthy honey bees in swarm traps around the Big Island, certainly not a sign of friendship or support for the bees. According to Lyle Wong, the bees are killed to see if they had mites. However, there are effective nonlethal methods to tell this, as beekeepers will attest. Nevertheless, over 350 healthy bee hives have been killed around Hilo, and healthy bees are still being killed in swarm traps on the Kona side.
Why have swarm traps? It helps to see if the mite has arrived in that area by inspecting the bees in the trap. Of course, there is nothing that this information tells you beyond the fact that the mite has arrived.
So why kill the bees in the traps if they are healthy? It’s because it is just easier for the government workers to bag the swarm traps and kill all the bees instead of moving the bees to a hive and letting them live.
This disregard for the honey bees should not be a surprise given the way the state regards the bee. But it has stirred the anger of some local bee lovers who want to save the bees, and move healthy bee swarms from the traps into hives that can be given to residents and farmers who want bees. However, the DOA is resisting these efforts to save the healthy bees, insisting on killing them.
It is also important to have as many healthy bee hives as possible to allow the bees to evolve and adapt to the mite.
In fact, natural selection could ultimately create a resistant honey bee that could survive this mite attack. But until that happens, we will see our food supply reduced. Beekeepers will have to manage their hives for mites and sell pollination services to large farm operations, as is now required on the Mainland as a result of varroa mite destruction of wild bee populations. Meanwhile, our wildlife will suffer from lack of fruit, causing some wildlife, such as pigs and birds, to encroach on backyards and farms to find food. Hunters and gatherers from the wild will find less game and fruit. Our wild food resources, as well as our gardens and orchards, will suffer.
Less honey. Less fruit. Less abundance. Life will not be as sweet in the islands.
But not everyone will lament. The DLNR will celebrate, along with all the invasive species committees and councils, with their state, federal and private alliances, all dedicated to eliminating non-native species from Hawaii. They will call the elimination of the honey bee “sweet”.
But it is all the rest of us who will get stung.
Sydney Ross Singer