A Mellifluous Wave

Hawai‘i beekeeping started on O‘ahu 159 years ago. It boomed, busted, and is now back on the rise.

Text by Travis Hancock | Images by John Hook

First, I encountered honey—honey that’s harvested in the woods in a primitive way,” says beekeeper Yuki Uzuhashi, who owns Manoa Honey Company. It’s Wednesday, extraction day at the company’s Wahiawā warehouse. Over the hum of two large centrifuges and classical music, Uzuhashi talks of how, as a roaming performance artist, he discovered honey harvesting in Jamaica. “I was living with a kind of Rasta guy, and he got stung one day and he was so pissed off he said, ‘I’m gonna steal their honey!’” The next morning, Uzuhashi woke to his host wrapping his face and dreadlocks in household screens, and pulling plastic bags over his hands. Kids from the village eager to score some honey rushed over with burning clumps of manure to help smoke the bees out.

Yuki Uzuhashi, who owns Manoa Honey Company, has participated in honey harvesting everywhere from Jamaica to Japan.

Yuki Uzuhashi, who owns Manoa Honey Company, has participated in honey harvesting everywhere from Jamaica to Japan.

“That whole experience—the drip of honey that he took from the hive, the bees buzzing around, all the buzz and scariness of it, that was buried into my heart,” Uzuhashi says. But it wasn’t until he was back in Japan, where he is from, that he heard about his country’s migratory beekeepers who follow the bees and flowers from the southern islands to the north each spring—perfect material for a performance artist who had grown disenchanted with short-form shows in white-walled galleries. In the ensuing decade, Uzuhashi mastered the art of transient Japanese beekeeping and performed a series of beekeeping exhibitions consisting of sculpture, in-gallery beekeeping, bee-themed musical performances, beeswax candle-making workshops, and, his favorite, bee-larvae-cooking classes.

Then, itching for change, he moved to Hawai‘i in 2014 to take over a small honey company that was founded in Mānoa in 1989 by Dr. Michael Kliks. “I didn’t know what Wahiawā was like. I had no image of Hawai‘i, only Waikīkī,” Uzuhashi says. Today, Manoa Honey Company has apiaries in 10 locations around O‘ahu, and sells honey, wax, and pollen to clients ranging from Whole Foods to ABC Stores. As Uzuhashi talks, Manoa Honey’s head beekeeper, Kunie “Kino” Kinoshita, is busy extracting clear, sweet honey from hives collected earlier in the week from the company’s reliable Wai‘anae apiary. The honey’s consistent quality is partly due to the healthy, low-stress conditions Uzuhashi creates for the bees, but it also has a lot to do with the insects’ food source: kiawe nectar.

On O‘ahu’s west side, kiawe, or algaroba trees, have been feeding happy bees for more than a century. In 1897, The Hawaiian Gazette reported that, within a year of its founding, the Sandwich Island Honey Company controlled “miles of algaroba forest,” on which it was “placing beehives by the thousand.” Helmed by brothers Lee and Oswald St. John Gilbert, the company capitalized on compounding factors: the quickly spreading kiawe trees, flower-crippling droughts in the mainland United States, and England’s insatiable sweet tooth. By 1901, Honolulu’s Evening Bulletin described the company as the “largest honey producer in the Islands, having extensive apiaries in Waianae and at other points on this island.” In 1908, Sandwich Island Honey Company was granted an additional land title for 1,629 acres in Lualualei, and Oswald came to be known as Hawai‘i’s “Honey King.”

Beekeeper Katie Metzger, of Honey Girl Organics, uses smoke to pacify the company’s bees before inspecting their hives.

Beekeeper Katie Metzger, of Honey Girl Organics, uses smoke to pacify the company’s bees before inspecting their hives.

Due to the insects’ inherent wildness, people from all walks of life have always had access to bee byproducts. For example, shortly after Hawai‘i’s first successful bee colony was established on O‘ahu in 1857 at the garden of German physician William Hillebrand, newspapers reported that Dwight “Old Oakum” Holcomb, an eccentric, shotgun-toting man living in a shack on Fort Street, was selling combs of wild honey he had collected on Mount Tantalus for $5 each. When it came to speaking what Uzuhashi calls “bee language,” Holcomb and Hillebrand were equals.

In the early 1850s, attempts to introduce the foreign insect to the islands via ships from the East Coast resulted in dead bees. Hillebrand’s hives fared better on a shorter route from California, packed in ice to simulate the wintry conditions through which bees hibernate. And though island bee populations eventually flourished here, Native Hawaiians are absent from early records of beekeeping. The Western trade remained a foreign practice—even the Hawaiian word for honey and bee, meli, has foreign roots, most likely coming from the Greek term for honey, μέλι (méli), via missionaries’ translations of the New Testament from Greek to Hawaiian.

Later, as O‘ahu’s sugarcane and pineapple production began to flourish, commercial beekeeping was pushed to the periphery. However, some early Japanese immigrants kept bees at Diamond Head, another site where Manoa Honey now has hives. Similarly, today’s modern urbanization has confined beekeeping to the remaining rural zones that passion-driven beekeepers are, fortunately, making the most of. “You don’t really choose the trade of beekeeping as a way of making money,” Uzuhashi says. “You have to have some genes or some kind of awakening in you.”

Or sometimes, the bees choose you. Such was the case with Katie Metzger, lead beekeeper at Honey Girl Organics, which specializes in natural cosmetics derived from bee products. Shortly after Metzger moved from California to O‘ahu’s North Shore, a swarm landed in her yard in Pūpūkea.

“I called around to find someone that could safely remove the bees, because I didn’t have anywhere to put them,” Metzger says. She discovered Honey Girl Organics just a block away. Anthony Maxfield, who is one of Honey Girl Organics’ founders and the current president of the Hawai‘i Beekeepers’ Association, agreed to take the swarm, and Metzger, who already had beekeeping experience, began helping the company with that year’s harvest.

IMG_7339“Anthony’s very hands-off. He lets the bees be, honestly, and that’s unique and different,” Metzger says. “There’s so much of a push to use pesticides and antibiotics because bee colonies are struggling right now. In fact, this year, we had a 44 percent loss across the country … but we know that nature is the best way to go.” Metzger and Maxfield prefer to help the bees learn to cope with pests like varroa mites and small hive beetles on their own, and it’s working.

Uzuhashi strives for this natural approach as well. “The relation between humans, bees, and the flora [is] a golden triangle,” he says as he walks through his warm, sweetly scented warehouse, where that “triangle” is converted into a honey blend he calls Pele’s Gold. A few stowaway bees that made it to Wahiawā buzz about, as if monitoring the process. Uzuhashi stops at an empty hive and pulls out a frame of honeycomb, then jabs his finger into the cells and lifts a gooey dollop of honey to his mouth. He nods. “Really mild. Very subtle. Very clear.”

More Honey, Please!

D_Burke_Photo_DSC_4241dlcglow  IMG_0875

On Kauaʻi
Honi Honi Honey

Chris Kauwe collects honey from the source on the Garden Isle’s south and west sides. While Native Hawaiians didn’t traditionally keep honeybees, an introduced species, Kauwe is making up for lost time. In Hawaiian, honi means kiss; his company is named for the act of bees “kissing” the flower. When you eat local honey, Kauwe says, “You’re actually tasting the flowers of Hawai‘i.”

Honi Honi Honey can be found in Līhu‘e at the Kaua‘i Community Market on Saturdays, in Kōloa at Kukuiula Market and The Wine Shop, and in Po‘ipū at Koa Kea Resort and Living Foods Market.


IMG_0520  IMG_0530

On Hawaiʻi Island
Big Island Bees

If there’s a modern comparison in terms of scope to Gilbert’s Sandwich Island Honey Company, it’s Big Island Bees, the largest producer of honey in the islands today, with 190 million bees living in 3,800 hives. Garnett Puett is the company’s fourth-generation owner, who literally approaches beekeeping as an artist. When not focusing on honey, he is creating large and often startlingly humanoid “apisculptures,” which are wax sculptures he makes by introducing hollow armitures for the bees to fill with honeycomb. These works show in museums around the world, and highlight a hidden dimension to man’s honey thievery—namely, that there is a collaborative creative process taking place in each apiary.

Big Island Bees is located in Captain Cook at 82-1140 Meli Rd. Suite 102, where the company offers twice-daily beekeeping tours and has a museum and tasting room that are open six days a week.

For more information, visit bigislandbees.com. To see one of Puett’s beeswax sculptures in Honolulu, visit Hawai‘i State Art Museum at 250 S. Hotel St.

Visit Lanai