There’s something new buzzing at Big Island Bees, a well-known producer of pure and organic Hawaiian honey on the island.
At its facility off Napoopoo Road in South Kona, the company is now offering a free morning tour that’s bound to make visitors bug-eyed when watching employees carefully lift frames, full of bees and honey, from wooden hives. Not only will visitors get a close-up look at these bee colonies from behind a screen and hear the distinctive buzz, they’ll also get an opportunity to learn about this extraordinary insect, its hive, beekeeping and honey production.
The tour, which can accommodate 20 people at a time, is offered at 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday; reservations are required.
Besides exploring the hives, visitors tour the company’s museum, where they view old photographs and tools of a beekeeper while also learning fun facts like honeybees have been in Hawaii for more than a century. And of course, “bee” sure to taste the free honey samples.
Whendhi Grad started Big Island Bees in 2004 as a way to have value-added products and market “some of the world’s finest single-floral, artisanal honey.” Previously, she was an elementary school teacher and textile artist.
Her husband, Garnett Puett, is a fourth generation beekeeper, co-owner of Captain Cook Honey Co., and an apisculpture artist. His father, Garnett George Puett Jr., was a beekeeper who also reared queen bees in Georgia. When his father died, his mother married Jim Powers, a fourth generation honey producer from Idaho and owner of Powers Apiaries Inc., a national honey production firm that operated hives in North Dakota, Arizona and Florida.
Puett said his family started a honey operation in Hawaii in 1971, when Powers bought out the Hawaiian American Honey Co., the largest honey producer in the islands at the time, with most of its 1,500 hives located in Puuanahulu and at Puuwaawaa Ranch. The ranch was then owned by Lowell Dillingham who supported the presence of honeybee colonies on his land. Powers later increased the number of hives and expanded the bees’ foraging areas, as well as moved the operation to 7 acres in Kealakekua, where the company, renamed Powers Apiaries, could have a proper shop and employee housing. Powers also started a queen rearing business called Kona Queen Co., later sold in 1992 to Gus Rouse, who is still operating it today.
Puett grew up working the hives of his stepfather’s firm with his bare hands. He took a break to go to college and study fine art. He then lived for several years in New York, where he showed his apisculptures — pieces shaped by Puett and dripping with complex, beautiful honeycombs constructed by bees — in galleries.
In 1988, Puett and his partner, Benny Cariaga, purchased Powers Apiaries after his stepfather retired. They renamed it Captain Cook Honey Co. For many years, they managed upwards of 4,000 hives and sent most of the honey produced to the mainland. Beekeeping was more idyllic then, Puett said.
A lot has changed, particularly with development, loss of areas to place hives, pesticides being overused, and the unfortunate invasion of pests such as varroa mites and hive beetles. There’s also the industry’s shift from honey producing to being more concerned about getting a giant paycheck and competing with international honey. Such greed has resulted in feeding bees sugar syrup and other supplements, Puett said.
Captain Cook Honey Co. must be vigilant about the management of its hives, particularly about any treatment and control of pests. The company is also determined to maintain its commitment to producing honey organic and healthy farming practices. In addition, he and his staff must know each hive individually and very well to ensure the bees remain healthy and productive.
Puett said honey production is very time consuming, requiring lots of planning, organizing and attention. The company now manages about 1,700 hives.
When Grad started Big Island Bees, about 5 to 10 percent of the honey produced by Captain Cook Honey Co. went there. Today, Puett said 90 to 95 percent of the honey produced goes to Big Island Bees and the remaining product goes to bakeries and processing companies. Their raw, unpasteurized honey stays on the island through the entire process.
What makes their honey so special is that bees collect nectar from a single type of flower — either ohia lehua, macadamia nut blossoms or wilelaiki, Christmas berry — when foraging. Because those flowers bloom at different times of the year in different parts of the island, the honey is extracted about three times a year. Each honey’s taste profile is based on the location, similar to wine, Grad said.
“As a result, the flavors, colors and textures of each varietal are completely different,” she said. “The flavors are also much more intense than honey that has been produced from several different types of flowers or honey that has been blended and heated.”
Grad said interest in real honey has grown over the past decade, thanks in part to the local food movement, more education about food systems, and consumers’ desire to create relationships with farmers and other producers. In the beginning, Grad used to have to explain why their honey crystallized and didn’t come in a bear-shaped bottle.
Along with offering perfectly packaged raw honey, Big Island Bees also has honey mustard, jellies, lip balm and soaps. There are picnic tables for guests to stay a while and take in the picturesque view of Kealakekua Bay. Eventually, the company plans to offer baked goods and water.
For more information, call 328-7318 or visit bigislandbees.com.