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Saving wild honey bees

Written by Craig Elevitch | Agroforestry.net on 14 February 2010.

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Bringing wild honey bee colonies such as this under human management is a proactive measure we can take now to prepare for the varroa mite's establishment on Hawai'i Island.

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is an important pollinator in Hawai'i. It was brought here first in 1857 and flourished in both wild and human-managed colonies. Many of our food plants rely on the honey bee for pollination to produce good crops, including macadamia nut, coffee, lychee, avocado, melons, and many more. Until recently, the honey bee has been relatively free of serious pests and diseases in Hawai'i, having been geographically isolated in the Hawaiian islands and protected by agricultural quarantine from new honey bee imports.

Our environments have supported large numbers of wild colonies that have provided crop pollination services without our even noticing. We have taken the honey bee's pollination services for granted for many decades and now we can no longer afford to remain idle.

In 2007, a serious pest of the honey bee reached Hawai'i, the varroa mite (Varroa destructor). It first appeared on O'ahu, where it rapidly spread through both wild and managed colonies. Since its arrival on O'ahu, varroa mite has lead to the death of over 90% of the wild colonies. This high percentage of colony death has been experienced throughout the world where varroa mite has appeared (except for in Africa, where the so-called Africanized bees are resistant to varroa). In 2008, the varroa mite arrived on the windward side of Hawai'i Island and has quickly spread to most districts as of December 2009.

The University of Hawai'i and the State Department of Agriculture in collaboration with our island's beekeepers have been working on developing best practices for controlling varroa mite in managed colonies. The management techniques are time consuming and costly, but effective. A promising formic acid treatment is being tested. This treatment also has the potential for use in certified organic bee management, which is very good news for many of our island's certified organic beekeeping operations.

Even though control of varroa in managed hives appears possible, 90% of our abundant wild hives will die unless we take action now to bring them under human management. Because we have such a huge number of wild colonies, their loss will have a severe impact on many crops. Beehive Hawaii president Antonie Botes, an expert beekeeper who has worked with varroa response measures throughout the world, says that the best course of action at this juncture is to bring our wild colonies into management as soon as possible. If you know of any wild colonies in your area, please contact a beekeeper who is trained in wild extraction.

For beekeeping training or wild colony extraction, contact Antonie Botes at 808-285-6677 or BeeHiveHawaii Website.