Raising Honeybees in the Tropics of Hawai’i


Raising bees is unlike raising any other animal on the homestead.  Unlike goats, cows or sheep which are somewhat domesticated, bees are still wild creatures, doing as they please.  They call your hive home because of what you do to make it inviting for them, not because you put them there. 

The moment you slack off, boom!  They’re buzzing off searching for another hive.

Raising bees already comes with its challenges.  Raising them in Hawai’i is even harder.  There is a constant threat from pests.  Large agricultural farms on some islands utilize heavy pesticides that threaten their existence.  Local laws sometimes outlaw the ability to even raise bees.

None of that has stopped the honeybee from playing a major role in backyard homesteads across the state.  In this article, we’re going to give you an introduction into raising bees in the tropics, highlighting some of the issues that beekeepers are facing here, where we live.


Related: If you are looking for a Step By Step Course on keeping bees, then you have to check out the online course by The Happy Keeper. The course tells you all you need to know, from starting a hive to harvesting honey. Bonus! They’re from Hawai’i!

BEEKEEPING MADE SIMPLEOpens in a new tab.


Introduction to Bees

Bees have been on Earth for a long time.  The first record of a bee was the discovery of an amber encased bee dating back 100 million years ago in what is now known as Myanmar.  Many believe the bee originated in parts of tropical Africa and southeast Asia, then spreading out from there.

You got that right.  The bees original natural habitat was the tropics!

Out of the 20,000 species of bees, only a small fraction of them are actually honeybees.  Hawai’i has 6 species of bees that are native to the islands, but honeybees are not one of them.  Honeybees were introduced to the islands sometime during the 19th century.

The production of honey by bees in the tropics far outweigh the amount produced in more temperate climates.  Bees are able to produce year round in the tropics due to the mild climate, but with that brings more pests.

In the mid 2000’s, varroa mites almost wiped out beekeeping on Oahu and Hawai’i Island all together.  However, island beekeepers were able to adapt and have come up with strategies to mitigate the effectiveness of the destructive pests.

As we enter the 2020’s, the future of beekeeping looks bright for all of the Hawai’i Islands and the rest of the tropics as a whole.


Hawaii Beekeeping Laws

The state of Hawai’i as well as each county have some strict guidelines when it comes to raising honeybees in the islands.

Importation of bees is Illegal.  This is done to protect what we already have.  Hawai’i has a big problem with invasive species as can be seen by what happened to the industry when the Varroa mite showed up. It is also illegal to ship the bees inter island unless they have been inspected by the Department of Agriculture.

In 2013, the state made it possible for home based producers of honey to be exempt from having to process honey in certified honey houses as long as they meet the following:

  1. They sell less than 500 gallons of honey per year;
  2. They sell honey directly to consumers or retailers who sell directly to consumers;
  3. They label each container of honey sold with the following:
    1. The name and address of the producer,
    2. The net weight and volume of the honey by standard measure,
    3. The date the honey was produced,
    4. The statement “Honey should not be consumed by infants under one year of age” in clear and conspicuous print, and
    5. The statement “This product is home-produced and processed and has not been inspected by the Department of Health” in clear and conspicuous print;
  4. They attend a Department of Health-approved food-safety workshop and pass the food-safety certification exam; and
  5. They keep honey production volume and product distribution records for a period of at least two years, making the records available to the department as requested.

If these criteria are not met, then producers are required to obtain a commercial permit from the State Department of Health. If the Department receives a consumer complaint about a home-based agricultural producer of honey, the producer will be subjected to food sampling and a subsequent inspection of the premises to determine whether products are misbranded or adulterated (§328-80).

Courtesy Ctahr

As for the counties, each one has their own separate regulations.  The City and County of Honolulu allows beekeeping in all zone areas, as long as there are no more than 8 hives, 25’ from the property line.

Hawai’i County only allows bees in areas zoned Agricultural (A), Intensive Agriculture (IA) and Residential and Agriculture (RA).  In (A) and (AI) districts, bees must be located no less than 1000’ from any major road or other zoning area.  In (RA) districts, there is a 75’ setback.  The county is working on updating its guidelines to match that more of Honolulu County.

In Kauai County, bees are allowed in all Agricultural Districts (A) as long as they are 500’ from any Residential district (R) or Resort zones.  If you want to keep bees if you live in residential zoning, you are going to have to get a special use permit from the county.

In Maui County, bees are allowed on rural or agricultural zoned properties without the need for further permission.  The districts of Wailuku, Makawao, Lahaina, Hana, Lana‘i, and Moloka‘i that have yet to come up with their own comprehensive zoning ordinance allow bees as long as you obtain a special use permit.  Beekeeping is not allowed in the residential zoned areas of the island., but a conditional permit MAY be granted.

Related: Best Chicken Breeds For Hawai’i

Costs to Keeping Bees

While it is possible to get into beekeeping for no money, for most of us, there is going to be a cost involved.  For most beekeepers, those costs usually end up being more than the first thought.  

Costs involved with beekeeping generally involve the Hive, the bees themselves and other related equipment such as bee suit, smoker, beekeeping tools and depending on how you raise your bees, an extractor to get the honey out of the frames.

It is safe to say that if you purchase all of the above, you will be looking at roughly a $500 initial outlay to begin raising bees.  However, most beekeepers recommend starting off with two hives.  It is best to have another hive to compare too so you can tell whether or not a hive is healthy.

If you are looking to save money, you can build your own hive, catch your own swarm and use minimal equipment to the point where you do not use a bee suit smoker, or various extras that most beekeepers say are required.  If it wasn’t clear already though, this route would take more experience.

One last cost to consider is the cost in your time.  How much time does it take to actually raise bees?  It is safe to estimate that it takes 15-30 hours a week, but some people spend a lot more because of their fascination with the bee world.  It’s up to you really.

Types of Beehives

Traditionally, bees would find caves, logs or other cracks to form their hives.  Today, we’ve created our own version of what a bee home should be like.  The Langstroth Hive is the most popular hive around the world and the easiest to manage for the beginner.

However, lots can be said about other hive styles such as Topbar Hives and Warre Hives.  We will dive into each one to help you make your decision.

HIVE COMPARISONS

Langstroth HiveTopBar HiveWarre Hive
PROSStandardizedBees Seem to be very Happy in these HivesSuper Low Maintenance
Premade FoundationsNo Supers (Langstroth)=No Heavy LiftingLess issues with population and temperature control.
Easy Honey ExtractionVery InexpensiveSupers are on the bottom (better for the bees)
CONSCells on foundation larger than natural cellsRequires more inspectionsExpensive
No way of knowing if the wax foundation is contaminatedNot standardized, so custom made parts are necessaryNeed extra help to add on supers
Honey harvest is a lot less than a Langstroth hive.Hard to use an entrance feeder

In Hawai’i, where Varroa Mite has been found, TopBar Hives have been found to be more effective when it comes to raising healthy bees than the Langstroth Hives.  

Because bees are allowed to make their own comb inside of a topbar hive, they can form the foundation cells at the proper size, eliminating the chance for the varroa mite to make a foothold.

Langstroth hives are not even really an option anymore for the backyard beekeeper on the islands of Oahu and Hawai’i.  The only way commercial beekeepers are able to do it is through chemical intervention.  We don’t want that.

Where To Locate Hives

Warre

Bees need 4 things in order to be happy.  First off, in the hottest parts of the tropics, they require morning sun with some late morning and afternoon shade.   The cooler uplands can get away with bees in the full sun.  Preferably the hives are placed facing south so the bees can feel the welcoming warmth of the morning sun as it rises in the sky.

Second, the bees will need access to water.  A shallow bird bath or simply a plate with a thin layer of water would be perfect.  This would provide easy access for the bees to get water, but will also keep them safe from drowning.

Third, the bees must be protected from wind, which can drive rain into the hive, making it more difficult for the bees to manage the hive’s temperature.

Lastly, bees need privacy.  Put them in an out of the way spot in the garden away from any foot traffic, pools, play areas or other hotspots on your property.  Try to keep their flight path out of your path.

Where To Get Honey Bees In Hawai’i

Because bees are illegal to import, it can be a little harder tracking down a source of bees in some parts of the islands.  Thankfully, there are a lot of backyard beekeepers and even a few companies that are selling bees.  You can also catch your own swarm, if you’re daring enough.

CATCHING A SWARM

Imagine this.  The day before your wedding and someone calls you about a swarm that is in their backyard and asks if you can come get it.  Do you do it?  Well, my wife and I did it.  No worries.  We got this.

Fortunately for us, when bees are swarming, they are not aggressive.  There is very little chance of getting stung.  So if I remember correctly, we suited up in pants and long sleeves and brought some gloves and a beekeeper veil.  We also brought a box primed with a little beeswax as an attractant to catch the bees into.

This swarm was about 12’ up in a tree and we had no ladder.  So, together by me standing on a chair and her on my shoulders, she carefully clipped the swarm off the branch and they fell into the box without us falling onto the ground.

We closed up the box and were on our way.  The owners of the house thought we were crazy.  Probably most people wouldn’t do that the day before their wedding.  But when there’s a chance at a free swarm of bees, you jump on it.

PURCHASING BEES

A swarm doesn’t always come around though, so purchasing bees will probably be your best option.  You can try and ask around for any local beekeeper that may have some for sale or reach out to this list below.  Depending on which island you are on, you can have bees shipped to you.

We are lucky here in Hawai’i. Queen bees raised here are some of the best in the world.

Food For Bees In The Tropics

Access to abundant food sources is very important for the health of the hive.  Without flowering plants rich in pollen your bees will struggle.  As a general rule of thumb, bees go as far as two miles from the hive, searching for food.  Don’t make them work that hard.

We can help the bees by planting a variety of plants that will flower and provide food for the bees in your own backyard.  Since we’re into permaculture here, I am going to give you some plants that will provide food for the bees and other functions as well.

  1. Grow a Vegetable and Herb Garden (Year Round Flowering) – Much of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.  We can help the bees and ourselves by growing a vegetable and herb garden.

    By letting vegetables bolt or herbs to go to flower, we are providing valuable flowers for bees to find their pollen, but not before we harvest for our own garden.  Win! Win! For everyone!
  2. Avocado (January Thru April Flowering) – I have an Avocado tree in my backyard that is humming with bees during the early months of the years.  I can hear them from my house!  Avocados are not only a great source of pollen for bees, but also food for us!
  3. Ohi’a Lehua (April Thru June Flowering) – This is a native tree to Hawai’i that grows all over Hawai’i, especially in the Puna district of Hawai’i.  The tree is sacred to the Hawaiian people and is considered the bringer of rain.  The flowers are also a great source of pollen and material for lei making.
  4. Perennial Peanut (May Thru July Flowering) – This is a perennial ground cover that shoots up beautiful yellow flowers in the early summer months.  You can easily replace grass with perennial peanut and have a beautiful lawn that provides valuable pollen for bees as well as enriches your soil with Nitrogen.
  5. Palm Trees (Year Round Flowering) – Many palm trees provide flowers bees love, year round.  These include coconut, peach palm, wax palm and more.  Very often I can hear bees buzzing around the flowers of my coconut trees.  It is such a beautiful sound.
  6. Noni Fruit (Year Round Flowering) – The fruit we all love.  Nothing like eating something that tastes like dirty socks.  But it does make a great medicine!  Why is it that things that are good for you have to taste so bad?  At least the bees love it.  The noni produces flowers year round.
  7. Surinam Cherry (Spring & Fall) – The surinam cherry is a compact tree that produces these sour/tangy fruits that my kids love!  This plant can produce up to 2 times a year and when it does, it produces tons of flowers that bees love.

Hive Setup & Inspections

Depending on which hive you choose, there will be different methods for initial setup and inspections.  Before you bring your bees home, your hive should be fully set up and ready to go.  All hives should be assembled and painted and placed on a solid foundation such as concrete blocks or pallets.

First off, when you get your bees, inspect your package.  Some dead bees are normal, but more than an inch of dead bees on the bottom and you have a problem.  Be sure to keep the package in the shade and wait till the late afternoon to introduce them to their new home.

In the meantime you can feed them with a solution of sugar water inside of a spray bottle that you spray the sides of the bee package with so they can eat.

When you are ready to introduce the bees to the hive, make sure you plug off the entrance to the hive so they can’t fly away.  Carefully take out the queen cage and remove the cork keeping her from getting out.  Add a couple of handfuls of bees on to the queen cage so she gets plenty of help from the other bees.  Then carefully place the remainder of the bees into the rest of the hive and close it up.  Hopefully they like their new home.

You can help there transition by including a feeder mixed with a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water.  This will help them out in the early days, but don’t let them get hooked.  Slowly wean them off the sugar water in a week or so.  That way they can begin to find their own food.

The method of introducing bees to a hive will differ according to your hive style.  We will get more into that in future articles.  But the process described above is pretty similar for each hive.

Once the bees are settling in, you can begin to inspect the hive.  If you are a beginner, you will want to do this once a week to begin to learn and recognize patterns with the bees. 

You may also want to invest in some beekeeping gear to help increase your confidence around the bees. I have found this setupOpens in a new tab. from Amazon to work pretty well for the beginning beekeeper. You may also want to invest in a veil.Opens in a new tab.


Once you begin to feel more comfortable, you can inspect the hives every two weeks. You may even begin to inspect your hives without a smoker or veil.

Make sure the hives are clean, free of debris and there are no ants or other pests in the hive.  On the warm days, check for larvae and eggs, this will give you a good indication on how healthy your queen is.

Your goal is to inspect the hives as little as possible.  Everytime you inspect a hive and use a smoker, the bees get stressed, taking them a day to recover.  Eventually you will be able to know what’s going on inside the hive just by watching them from the outside of the hive, but that takes time.

Related: Worm Composting: Hawai’i’s Answer to Fertility in the Garden

Bee Pests in the Tropics

The pest that has caused the most destruction in the Hawaiian Honeybee hive is the Varroa mite.  Thankfully, they are only found on two islands at the moment, Hawai’i Island and Oahu.  Left unchecked they can cripple or even kill an entire hive.

Utilizing topbar hives or foundationless frames can help with the varroa mite.  By allowing the bees to create their own foundation, they can construct the cells to proper size which enable them to be more effective at fighting back against a varroa mite invasion.

Other pests to be on the lookout for are the wax moth, small hive beetle and ants.  You can handle ants easily by placing the hive on a stand that is submerged in water.  Topbar hives have legs so just put each leg in a can of water.

To deal with wax moths, make sure you have a healthy colony and before introducing new frames, put them in the freezer for two days.  This will kill any wax moth eggs and larvae that may be present.

Small hive beetles are attracted to a dirty workspace.  Cleaning up any scrap comb or debris will help eliminate any possible spread of small hive beetles.  If the infestation is really bad, you can treat the soil around the hive with permethrin, but be careful, it is very toxic to bees too.


Overwintering Bees in the Tropics

We are lucky in the tropics to have year round growing seasons.  Therefore, bees are also active year round here.  Honey production in the tropics greatly outweighs production in more temperate climates.  

To ensure that bees remain healthy, make sure there is enough flowering species nearby and keep them dry from the winter storms.  Otherwise, they should do just as well in the winter as they do in the summer.

Harvesting Honey

As your bees get established, they are going to need to hold onto their honey for most of the first year.  Eventually, that honey will be flowing and it will be time for you to harvest.  If you have a langstroth hive, you can use a honey extractor to separate the honey from the combs.


Related: If you are using a traditional Langstroth Hive, there’s no better way to remove honey from frames than by using a Honey Extractor. I have attached the link to the one I first used almost 12 years ago. It worked well and was easy to clean.

GOODLAND BEE SUPPLY HONEY EXTRACTOROpens in a new tab.


If you do not have an extractor or are using a different hive such as a Topbar Hive or Warre Hive, you can  follow this low tech method to extract your honey.

  1. Using a scraper, you can remove the honey with the wax from the foundation into a bowl.  Ten use a masher or slotted spoon, smash the wax to release the honey.
  2. Place a stainless steel strainer over a 5 gallon food grade bucket, place the crushed wax and honey into a cheesecloth and place it into the strainer.  Let it sit for 48hrs to allow the honey to slowly drain out.
  3. You can have your bucket outfitted with a drain valve and when ready, open up the spigot to let the honey drain out into mason jars of your choosing.  Four full frames of honeycomb will yield almost 12lbs of honey.  Plus beeswax to use in projects such as candlemaking, lip balm or to use when sporing logs with mushroom plugs.

Related: If you’re not looking to make your own bucket strainer, you can get one from Amazon. My friend had one of these and I have to say, it was a lot more refined than my DIY version.

MANUAL HONEY EXTRACTOROpens in a new tab.


When you finally get the chance to harvest the honey, all the time and hard work finally seems worth it.  Raising bees can be a rewarding endeavor.  They are a great animal to introduce onto any homestead, especially if you live in the tropics. 

So what are you waiting for?  Get out there and raise some bees!

References

https://cms.ctahr.hawaii.edu/pollinators/Resources/Beekeepers/Beekeeping-LawsOpens in a new tab.

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Sean Jennings

Sean has been living simply Off-Grid in Hawai'i for over 18 years. He lives debt free on Hawai'i Island with his family and over 40 chickens. When he's not tinkering around the homestead, he's off exploring the shorelines for fish & surf.

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