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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 13, 2007

Tiny mite big threat to bee industry

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Michael Kliks lifts a portion of a beehive to collect a sample of 500 bees to test for the varroa mite.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The varroa mite is the size of a pinhead.

Dept. of Agriculture

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Hawai'i beekeepers are being asked not to move bees and beekeeping equipment interisland following the discovery of potentially damaging honey bee mites on a Manoa bee farm.

Officials say the mite poses a threat to Hawai'i's $1.1 million honey industry as well as the state's wild bee population.

Varroa mites were detected on bees in three abandoned hives by a beekeeper last Friday. The varroa mite is considered one of the most serious honey bee pests and is found across much of the world.

Until now, Hawai'i had been one of the few places where the mite had not been detected. It is not known how the mites were introduced into O'ahu, though infested ships and shipments of bees through Hawai'i are possible sources.

"This bee mite poses a major threat to Hawai'i's bee industry and to feral bee populations," said Sandra Lee Kunimoto, chairwoman of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture. "Teams of HDOA staff have been working rapidly to determine the extent of the infestation and to establish containment and control plans."

The varroa mite is reddish brown in color, with an oval and flattened shape. It is about the size of a pinhead and can be detected with the unaided eye.

The mites have piercing and sucking mouthparts and feed on the blood of honey bee adults, larvae and pupae. The mites weaken adult bees and cause emerging bees to be deformed. The mites are spread from hive to hive through bee contact.

Hawai'i beekeepers are scrambling to determine the extent of the problem.

"We have no idea how widespread it is," said Michael Kliks, president of the Hawai'i Beekeepers' Association.

So far, the mites have been found in Manoa, Makiki and Tantalus, Kliks said. Results from tests in Palolo, Pacific Heights and the North Shore are pending.

Entomologists and pest-control specialists plan to survey all islands for the mites as soon as possible. However, surveys on commercial hives on the Big Island, where several of the state's queen bee-raising operations are located, have not detected the varroa mite.

That's good news for the Big Island's four producers of queen bees, which generate annual sales of more than $4 million, said state entomologist Darcy Oishi.

Hawai'i queen bees command a premium price because they're mite-free.

"The queen bees of Hawai'i have a couple-lap lead on everyone else," Oishi said.

State officials are preparing a quarantine order preventing the interisland movement of bees and beekeeping equipment. In the meantime, beekeepers are being asked not to move bees interisland.

"We are enlisting the help of all beekeepers, commercial and backyard hobbyists, to help us in assessing the extent of this infestation," said Lyle Wong, administrator of the state's Plant Industry Division. "HDOA officials will be visiting bee hives to conduct surveys, and the cooperation of beekeepers is very crucial in possibly stopping the spread of the varroa mite."

The varroa mite's natural host is the Asian honey bee, a species that is not extremely affected by the mite. The mite spread through Europe via Russia. In 1987, the varroa mite was discovered in North American bee colonies in Wisconsin and Florida.

By 1988, the mite was detected in 12 U.S. states and has since spread throughout the continental U.S. In 2000, the mite was discovered in New Zealand.

Beekeepers who suspect that bees in their hives have the varroa mite are asked to contact HDOA as soon as possible at 973-9530 (O'ahu) or the state's toll-free hot line at 643-PEST (7378).

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.