Beetle may threaten Big Island bee exports


HILO — The small hive beetle, the serious honeybee pest first spotted in Hawaii on the Big Island in April 2010, has now found its way to Kauai.

The state Department of Agriculture announced in a Friday press release the beetle may have been spread by beekeepers transporting hives from an already infested island, including Maui, Hawaii Island, Molokai or Oahu. It added the state’s valuable queen bee exportation business could suffer if foreign countries opt to ban imports from Hawaii, and the agency reminded beekeepers they are obligated by law to obtain permits and prior inspection before transporting their hives or beekeeping equipment.

Darcy Oishi, an entomologist with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, said Friday the infected hives could have come from most anywhere in the state.

“I was going to say it had to have come from Maui, Molokai, Oahu or the Big Island, but we don’t even know that, because there could be an infestation on some place we’re not even aware of right now,” he said.

The beetle is “very cryptic,” he said, and people often have trouble recognizing them, and in some cases choose not to report them. Therefore, they can be in an area for a long period of time before the infestation is known.

On Monday, according to the release, a beekeeper in Lihue noticed unusual beetles on some beekeeping equipment near his hives.

“The Plant Pest Control Branch of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture was contacted on May 22, and samples were taken and sent to HDOA entomologists in Honolulu, who confirmed the identification of small hive beetle Thursday,” the release stated. “In the meantime, HDOA received reports that potentially infected hive material had been previously moved to other locations on Kauai. HDOA staff is currently surveying and assessing the extent of the infestation on the island.”

Oishi said that established beekeeping operations on the Big Island are already quite familiar with the quarantine on transporting their hives, but added the Hawaii queen export businesses is booming at the moment, with more and more people hoping to cash in. And educating those people is now a priority in order to protect the burgeoning industry.

“The circumstances of this particular problem is that it’s good people noticed there was a problem and notified the Department of Agriculture, but it also highlights that if beekeepers are interested and want to do things like collecting swarms or doing hive removals, they really ought to be careful about what they do,” he said. “They don’t want to intermingle a new hive with their own stocks. That’s just asking for problems. There should be a quarantine, period. Watch it carefully. Be responsible.”

Oishi added Hawaii’s exports are in a precarious position when it comes to foreign countries. The continental United States already has small hive beetle and accepts imports of Hawaiian queen bees readily. But not so for other big importers.

“When the small hive beetle first appeared on the Big Island, Canada put more stringent restrictions on exports of our queens,” he said. “Canada is our biggest customer for our queen-rearing industry, outside the continental U.S., so that was pretty significant. And Europe, another smaller, but important, market outright refused to take our shipments.”

Oishi added Japan opted to close its markets to Hawaii queen honeybees after another pest, the varroa mite, became established here.

Small hive beetle adults are about four to five millimeters in length and are yellowish-brown in color, turning brownish, then to black at maturity. They feed on most anything inside a beehive, including honey, pollen, wax, as well as honeybee eggs and larvae. As they feed, they tunnel through the hive, damaging or destroying the honeycomb and contaminating the honey.

Symptoms of infestation include discolored honey, an odor of decaying oranges, and fermentation and frothiness in the honey. Heavy infestations may cause honeybee colonies to abandon hives. The beetle is native to sub-Saharan Africa and was first detected in the U.S in 1996 in South Carolina. It was subsequently detected in Florida in 1998 and is currently found in many states in the south and central areas of the U.S. and California.

Besides being honey producers, bees are critical pollinators for many food crops, including melons, watermelons, cucumbers, squash, lychee, mango, macadamia nut, coffee, eggplant, avocado, guava, herbs and some flowering plants, such as sunflowers. HDOA estimated in 2007 that about 70 percent of Hawaii’s food crops depend on pollination by bees.

Beekeepers who notice any suspicious beetles or larvae inside bee colonies are asked to contact HDOA immediately at hdoa.ppc@hawaii.gov or by phone at 973-9525 (Oahu) or 274-3072 (Kauai). More information is also available at hawaiibee.com.