New state law benefits small-scale beekeepers

Changes in honey-production regulations, signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie last week, will benefit home-based, uncertified honey producers, also referred to by local beekeepers as the “renegade honey guys,” according to a handful of Maui beekeepers.

“It will allow small beekeepers like us to sell our honey at stores,” said Jonathan Starr of Maui Natural Bee, who has been lobbying for the bill in the state Legislature for the last two years.

The measure also has been touted as good for the pollinators.

“We must encourage beekeeping operations of all sizes to ensure that honeybee stocks thrive in both managed apiaries and the wild, especially as bee populations have declined due to disease and invasive predators,” said Abercrombie in signing the bill Monday.

Senate Bill 482 “will make beekeeping more financially viable for beekeepers to legally extract, bottle and sell honey by minimizing unnecessary administrative and bureaucratic requirements in ways that will not affect public safety,” he said.

The key components of the measure:

* The threshold for sales of honey produced by beekeepers, not certified by the state Department of Health, has been raised from 50 gallons to 500 gallons a year.

* Uncertified honey producers may now sell their product to retailers. Beekeepers only had been allowed to sell their product face-to-face to consumers at places such as roadside stands.

* Labeling on the bottles will include the additional statements “and has not been inspected by the Department of Health” and “should not be consumed by infants under 1 year of age.” The new provisions join current labeling requirements, which include the name and address of the producer, net weight and volume of honey, date honey was produced, and that the product is home-produced and processed.

* Beekeepers bypassing state certification will need to attend a state Department of Health-approved food safety workshop and pass a food safety certification exam.

* Beekeepers need to keep honey production volume and product distribution records for a period of at least two years and make the records available to the Health Department.

All of these provisions are aimed at aiding many small beekeepers, “who have been unable to successfully navigate current regulatory hurdles required to operate a certified food-processing establishment on their own premises for the extraction and bottling of honey,” said state Board of Agriculture Chairman Russell S. Kokubun.

For example, Starr said that the property where his beehives reside in the Kaupo-Kipahulu area is not hooked up to the county water system. That alone prevents him from building a certified honey-producing facility there, he said.

Paul Apao, Maui Queen Bee Co. part-owner, added that those not on the county sewer system also face stringent requirements for their septic systems in order to meet certification requirements. With many beehives in remote areas or areas outside of the county sewer system, this becomes another impediment for small beekeepers, he said.

“There was no incentive to increase the bee populations, whereas now there is a much more reasonable threshold,” Starr said.

“It is very hard to make money raising bees and selling honey,” he continued, adding that he hopes the bill will encourage others to become beekeepers. “It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of dedication.”

The new law still will not make the honey business lucrative, he said.

“We do it out of love,” Starr said. “We want people to get their honey.”

There are more than 60 beekeepers on Maui, who maintain hives all over the island, from Haiku to Kihei to Kula to Hana, estimated Danielle Downey, apiculture specialist with the state Department of Agriculture. Fourteen beekeepers are registered with her; five have 10 or more hives.

Starr said that a healthy hive could have 50,000 bees. He said that he currently manages more than 20 hives but had 30 hives and close to a million bees at one point in his business.

Honey production from each of his hives varies from year to year and runs from 100 pounds to none annually, Starr said. The state average for honey production per hive is 74 pounds annually, Downey said.

In addition to extracting honey from hives for market, one Maui beekeeper propagates queen bees to sell on the Mainland. Another Maui beekeeper said that he works out deals with landowners who want the honey and the pollinators on their property.

Not all beekeepers on Maui were aware of the new regulations. Ken Darr of Alii Bees was one of them. He has a couple hundred hives spread out over Waihee, Keokea, Wailea, Kula and Olinda.

Darr takes a small portion of the honey produced – about 100 to 150 gallons a year – for his label, but sells the rest – another couple hundred gallons – to others to bottle and label. His honey can be found under other brand names at Whole Foods Market and Mana Foods, he said.

Although he has access to a certified kitchen and could make more money bottling, he prefers selling his honey in buckets and having others take his honey to market.

“I don’t have to worry about it,” he explained.

He estimated making about $10,000 selling his honey wholesale last year.

On the new regulations, Darr said that he is a certified producer and doesn’t plan to change that status.

The measure signed into law will not affect Apao’s operations, either. He raises queen bees, the essential building block of a hive, and exports them to Mainland beekeepers and honey producers. Maui Queen Bee Co., operating out of Waiehu, is the only apiary raising and selling queen bees on Maui.

Apao has an advantage over his counterparts on the Big Island because Maui has not been infested by the varroa mite, which sucks blood from adults and developing brood, shortening lifespans and creating deformities. Untreated, they can kill the hive.

Because the Big Island is infested with the mite, beekeepers there can only export to places with the mite, which includes Oahu but not Kauai and Maui. Because Maui does not have the mite, Maui Queen Bee has a wider range of places to sell its bees.

Another recent pest, the small hive beetle, has been attacking some Maui hives. Starr said that the beetle can be found all over Maui and that he’s had some weak hives affected by the pest. Downey said the beetle is “well established and widespread” on Maui, though many beekeepers have not seen much damage so far.

The ones who have encountered the beetle “call it very damaging,” she added.

Small hive beetle adults feed on almost everything inside a beehive, including honey, pollen and 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.

Although the new measure is aimed an enhancing commercial beekeeping, Downey noted that most of the island’s bees are feral, rather than managed. Their health depends on factors such as drought, agricultural practices, including pesticide use, and pests and disease, she said.

When asked if the Maui bee population is healthy, Downey replied: “We don’t know. This is hard information to get – surveying the whole island for feral bees is a resource-intensive project.

“We don’t know how many we need, how many we had or how many we have lost.”

Scientists do know that it’s getting more difficult to raise healthy bees in managed hives and that pollinators in the wild are declining globally, Downey said.

“It makes sense, to me, to help beekeepers stay in business by giving them options to sell their specialty products – small patch natural local honey,” she said.

“The bill made it possible, from impossible, for beekeepers,” Downey said.

Apao also was supportive of the measure.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “What we call ‘renegade honey guys’ . . . can crawl out of the woodwork and sell their honey. . . . So hopefully, we’ll be seeing more honey on the market.”

Not all beekeepers statewide were supportive of the measure, with some worried about the honey quality and the reputation of the Hawaii honey industry. Anthony Maxfield, president of the Hawai’i Beekeepers’ Association, testified in opposition to the bill during the last legislative session.

He said that most small-scale beekeepers will not produce more than the 50 gallons for sale under the old cap and that the measure could lead to the importation of cheap honey from out of state to capitalize on the reputation of Hawaii honey and open the door to inexperienced beekeepers, whose practices may lead to more disease and pests and produce inferior honey that will ruin the state’s reputation.

* Lee Imada can be reached at