Meet Big Island Bees
January on the Kona side of the Big Island is hot. Bird sounds fill the air and herald the beginning of the coffee bloom; a time when the aromatic white flowers of coffee trees begin to rush the landscape, a phenomenon known locally as Kona snow. My visit to this side of the island is prompted by the release of Hawaiian Ola’s new line of Sparkling Noni drinks, and a unique sweetener that sets them apart from most others—Hawaiian honey.
Big Island Bees
On this visit my aim is to get to know our honey producer, Big Island Bees, and to gather a deeper understanding of how honey is made. I’ll spend two days meeting with co-owner Wendy and taking a tour of the facility and museum. In this first of a three-part series I talk about the history of the company. In later posts I explore the differences between organic and conventional honey and share the experience of taking one of Big Island Bee’s guided daily tours.
Wendy greets me from a desk inside a cool warehouse where people are busy packing honey into small glass jars and hustling heavy fifty-gallon drums into place for shipment. Big Island Bees is the largest apiary in Hawaii and the largest organic honey producer in the United States. Wendy’s husband, Garnett, purchased the operation in 1988 from his stepfather and ten years ago Wendy created the Big Island Bees retail brand.
As a brand, Big Island Bees sells various sized containers of different varieties of honey and all but one are certified organic. Wendy tells me that making the operation organic was an important priority for Garnett early on. As a fourth generation beekeeper (and talented sculpture artist), Garnett came to Hawaii from Idaho specifically to raise bees. Today the operation is thriving and unlike many apiaries, does not offer pollination services—as Wendy puts it, “We just do honey.”
Hawaii’s Honey Capital
Hawaii is a great place to raise bees because of the island’s complimentary climate and isolation from unfriendly pathogens. Pests, such as the Varroa (destructor) Mite, a parasite that feeds on bees by sucking their blood, has devastated world bee populations for decades. Five years ago, Hawaii was likely the last location to be impacted—and although the islands held out the longest, the effects were serious—Hawaii beekeepers lost as much as fifty percent of their bees and are still recovering today.
Wendy shows me around their warehouses and we talk about production and slowly make our way to a building humming with bee activity. The door is covered with bees and I get the sense that if I couldn’t hear them I could feel the hum of their presence in the air. “These bees aren’t ours, they’re scavenger bees.” Wendy tells me. They smell honey inside and come looking for a free snack. The local region has attracted many bee cultivators, making it a sort of beekeeping mecca. Down the street, the largest queen bee producer in the country ships vital queens to apiaries all over the world.
Big Island Bees keeps a water reservoir for thirsty bees to rehydrate—a community oasis for their own bees, as well as scavengers, including wandering visitors from other nearby hives. The above ground pond is topped with green pads suspended above the surface by buoyant air sacks of water hyacinth. The pads give bees a safe place to land and drink without danger of drowning. Most of the bees at the pond today are visitors. Wendy’s bees are away this time of year collecting nectar and making honey in remote locations.
A Beekeeper’s Life
Back at the shop I ask about a device on the counter. “It’s a centrifuge,” she tells me, used to separate honey from wax with hand-cranked force. From beekeeping to processing and packaging, nearly everything is done in-house, here at Big Island Bees. The shop also has examples of Garnett’s other passion—sculpture. The works are made of bees wax and remind me of futuristic organic-inspired architecture. The wax substrate is a testament to how deeply bees are integrated into Garnett’s life.
As the day begins to cool I’m given advice for tomorrow’s tour and my task of capturing photos of open hives. Wendy asks me, “Have you ever been around bees?” She says it takes getting used to and that the key is to stay relaxed and calm. She assures me that the choice to sting is a mortal one for a bee and is rarely used as a last resort. Just in case, however, she tells me to wear covered shoes, long sleeves, and pants—a warm proposition under the afternoon Kona sun—but I’ll heed her advice.
Before calling it a day, we spend time talking about organic versus conventional honey. Bee keeping is a complex and labor-intensive art and while working organically makes for great honey, it also comes with additional challenges. After my first day at Big Island Bees, I’m feeling good about where our honey comes from and gratitude for the people that make it possible. In the next post I’ll share about organic beekeeping and the lengths Big Island Bees goes to ensure care for their bees and quality in their honey.
To learn more about Big Island Bees and to contact them about tour information, visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.