Busy as bees: Mother and daughter run a sweet operation in Kapaau

  • Dawn and Mariah Barnett examine bees busy at work on one of their Top Bar hives. They choose this design because it is less intrusive and allows the bees to live in a more natural state. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Dawn and Mariah Barnett examine bees busy at work on one of their Top Bar hives. They choose this design because it is less intrusive and allows the bees to live in a more natural state. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • The mother/daughter team care for more than a dozen beehives in North Hawaii as part of their Bee Divine business. Their hope is to eventually have even more hives. (COURTESY PHOTO/MARIAH BARNETT)
    The mother/daughter team care for more than a dozen beehives in North Hawaii as part of their Bee Divine business. Their hope is to eventually have even more hives. (COURTESY PHOTO/MARIAH BARNETT)
  • They sell a variety of bee-related products at the Hawi Saturday Market weekly, such as raw wildflower honey, bee bread, candles and skin care products using bee wax, nectar, propolis and honey. (COURTESY PHOTO/DAWN BARNETT)
    They sell a variety of bee-related products at the Hawi Saturday Market weekly, such as raw wildflower honey, bee bread, candles and skin care products using bee wax, nectar, propolis and honey. (COURTESY PHOTO/DAWN BARNETT)

KAPAAU — The recent listing of seven species of Hawaiian Hylaeus yellow-faced bees protected under the Endangered Species Act calls attention to the plight of the world’s bee population.

For more than a decade and counting, bees — honeybees in particular — have been dying in droves.

“It’s been about a 30-45 percent honeybee loss yearly in the U.S.,” according to Lauren Rusert, State Apiarist for the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

The mass decline is attributed to a number of factors, including beekeeping treatments and practices prevalent at many large-scale migratory beekeeping companies, widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on crops, attacks by beetles and mites, and harmful pathogens infecting hives.

The decline is putting the world’s food supply in danger. According to the USDA, bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat and a dramatic decline in their population could be devastating.

“You don’t really think about it much, but honeybees pollinate almost everything we eat. So if there aren’t any honeybees, pollination may not occur, and then our fruits and vegetables don’t grow,” said Dawn Barnett, owner of Bee Divine in Kapaau.

Hawaii Island has not escaped the sting from a decline in its honeybee population. Barnett says that in 2008, the population of healthy beehives in Hawaii went way down due to the introduction of the Varroa mite, a tick-like mite which has a parasitic relationship with honeybees — a first on the island. Many hives were impacted suddenly and the situation was devastating to Hawaii Island’s bees and beekeepers.

Soon after, in 2010, the small hive beetle also came to the island, creating more devastation. Within a two- to three-year period, about 90 percent of commercial and wild hives died off due to the introduction of these new pests.

“It was comparable to when Columbus came and introduced influenza to the natives and huge portions of them died,” Barnett said. “The same exact thing happened to the bees because they’d never been exposed before.”

As a registered nurse, she says that just like humans, bees have immune systems.

“When you’re first exposed to something you’ve never been exposed to before, oftentimes you don’t have any defense against it,” Barnett said. “But over time, both bees and people tend to be capable of finding ways to adapt to and live with the new challenges that arise. So after initial die offs, many species still manage to survive and thrive, despite being exposed to new threats.”

In Kohala, for about four years after the mite and beetle came to the island, there were almost no bees at all, Barnett said. North Kohala farmers, particularly macadamia nut farmers and orchardists, were especially affected.

To help, a number of people in the area began practicing natural, treatment-free, small-scale beekeeping. The novice practice was introduced in large part to Kohala residents by Jen Rasmussen, an expert beekeeper from the Puna District.

“Without her, and her classes where she shared much of her knowledge and techniques, Beekeepers of North Kohala (BONK) wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing today,” Barnett said.

The organization was created to support and share information about beekeeping,

“By having small-scale beekeepers around, we’re helping to keep the population growing both with our bees and the bees that end up splitting and going out into nature,” she said. “We’re helping repopulate the bee population in Kohala by several of us doing little bits.”

When Barnett was contemplating backyard beekeeping, she had the desire but little else. Her young adult daughter, Mariah, was interested too, so together they became mostly self-taught, acquiring knowledge by reading books, talking to people, learning through experience and taking classes. Mariah also completed a six-week beekeeping course at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.

But by far, their biggest source of knowledge came from Rasmussen, which allowed them to fully embrace the concepts of intuitive, treatment-free beekeeping that she teaches.

Rasmussen continues to serve as an excellent resource for Dawn and Mariah and other beekeepers, particularly on the nuances in Hawaii. They frequently reference her self-published book titled, “Intuitive Treatment-Free Tropical Beekeeping,” found at The Locavore Store in Hilo, or on her website, paradisenectar.com.

Today, the mother/daughter team care for more than a dozen beehives in Kapaau, Hawi and Niulii. Their hope is to eventually have even more hives.

They prefer to use Top Bar hives, which are different from the more widely recognized Langstroth hives. Dawn feels they weigh less, are easier to maneuver and tend to be healthier for the bees. Hive inspections using the Top Bar hive design are less intrusive and allow the bees to live in a more natural state.

As the “queen bee” of Bee Divine, Dawn is excited to make bee-related products. She sells raw wildflower honey, bee bread – a combo of pollen, honey, nectar and wax – candles and skin care products including body butters, lip balms and elixirs comprised of wax, nectar, propolis and honey produced by her bees.

She said it took her until this year to have products to sell, and for the most part they sell out each week. The Bee Divine line can be found at the Hawi Saturday Market.

Barnett admits there are a few downsides to beekeeping, however.

“You will get stung even if you wear protection, and it always hurts no matter how many times it happens,” she said.

But even bee venom has a plus side. Some beekeepers say because of bee stings they’ve never become arthritic. Scientific evidence suggests that bee venom can be a powerful healing agent for humans in treating diseases such as Lyme disease, arthritis, asthma, chronic fatigue, poor circulation, carpal tunnel, sciatica and mood disorders, among others.

The Barnetts proudly allow the bees to raise their own natural cell queens. The bees they have today are the same ones they started with more than three years ago.

Most importantly, however, “We’re doing our part to help the bee population in North Kohala,” Barnett said. “People who weren’t seeing bees are now seeing them again.”

A series of beekeeping classes will be offered throughout March in Hilo, sponsored by the Big Island Beekeepers Association. Taught by representatives of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Apiary Program, all classes will be held in Room D-202 at the Komohana Research and Extension Center (CTAHR), 874 Komohana Street, Hilo. Topics will include “Beginning Beekeeping &Bee Biology” on March 7, 5-8 p.m.; “Honeybee Health: Pests and Diseases” March 9, 5-8 p.m.; “A Combined Apiary Day”March 11, 8:30 a.m.-noon; and “Products from the Hive” March 14, 5-7 p.m.; and March 16, 5-8 p.m.

To pre-register as required: Email noelaniwaters@hawaii.gov or call 339-1977

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