What Makes Molokai Meli Honey Special?
“Isn’t honey, honey; and don’t all honeys taste the same?” This is often the question we get when presenting honey education workshops to schools and groups who wonder what makes our honey special. By the time the presentation is over, they’ve not only learned what makes our honey special; but they’ve tasted the difference ~ a huge difference!
First, the taste of the honey is determined largely by the floral source of the nectar the bees gathered to make the honey.
We’ve tasted no better honey than kiawe honey, so we have selected sites for our apiaries that are surrounded by kiawe trees to maintain a pure kiawe honey. We also have had to relocate some of our apiaries to keep up with the strict requirements of organic certification. Most honey does not come from a single, specialized floral source.
The taste of honey is also determined by how much pollen is mixed with the honey. We choose to separate the hive into two sections with a queen excluder. This creates one area for the queen, brood (baby bees), eggs, pollen and honey for the bees’ consumption, and another area for the honey we extract for processing. Many honey producers argue that queen excluders reduce the amount of honey that can be harvested for sale. This may be the case, but we are more interested in quality than quantity.
The way the honey is processed also plays a factor in the taste of the honey. Raw honey is full of vitamins, nutrients and enzymes that are destroyed by the heating process that is used to process most honey. This not only changes the nutritional value, but it changes the taste and texture.
We are committed to producing totally unheated honey. We remove the cappings of the honeycomb all by hand and with only cold forks and knives. This is unheard of in commercial beekeeping. Most honey producers use heat to melt the cappings (or covering of wax) from the comb because it is faster. We also do not use a filter in the processing of our honey. Usually honey is heated to make it more liquid, then forced through a filtering device to make sure there are no large particles and to prevent it from naturally crystallizing. We believe in putting the honey in the jar the same way it came out of the hive ~ pure and natural.
Kiawe honey is known for its rapid rate of crystallization. This is one of the factors that make it desirable. Because the crystals in kiawe honey form so rapidly, they are very small. The tiny crystals create a smooth silky texture that solidifies within a few days. Stirring the solid kiawe honey will soften it so it can be scooped out by the spoonful. This is how most of our consumers use our honey ~ one tiny spoonful at a time placed upside-down on the tongue and allow it melt in their mouths. We also produce honey crystallized in the comb that upscale restaurants use to create delightful desserts.
The rapid crystallization of kiawe honey really causes it to stand out in texture, but it also creates an unusual challenge for the beekeeper. When the honey is ready to harvest, the bees close each cell of the comb with a covering of wax (or capping). If honey is harvested before this capping occurs, the water content of the honey is too high, causing the honey to ferment. Most beekeepers can harvest the honey one day, and extract it from the comb at any later date. Kiawe honey crystallizes so rapidly that it actually crystallizes in the hive!
Once the honey is crystallized in the comb, the only way to remove the honey from the wax is by using heat. This requires impeccable timing for raw (totally unheated) kiawe honey harvesting. There is a very small window of time from the capping of the comb to crystallization with which to work to extract the honey from the comb and get it in the jar. Once in the jar, we allow the honey to age in a climate-controlled area until the desired consistency is achieved.
The color of our Premium Silky kiawe honey is a creamy white color that is produced from nearly clear honey in the hive. We carefully select only the frames with clear honey for our Premium Silky. We believe the darker honey comes from darker nectar that may have been foraged by the bees at a time when there was more pollen on the flowers. As they first appear, the flowers are white then turn golden with the development of pollen.
We do produce a darker honey, Gourmet Kiawe, which is produced from these flowers; however we do not take the darker honey through the special aging process that creates the silky texture as we do with the white Premium Silky honey.
One of the practices that sets our apiary apart from the rest is that we do not purchase bees or queens from bee production farms. All of our hives have come from the wild. We began by removing unwanted bees from trees and buildings in our community and placing them in hive boxes in our apiary. This has grown to be a great service our company provides to our community.
We are constantly increasing the number of our hives by responding to bee removal calls around our island. We also raise our own queens for replacement or reproducing hives. People often wonder why we don’t just buy bees like most other beekeepers. What they don’t understand is that there are many diseases that honey bees carry including mites. Because we are on an isolated island, we have been able to keep these things from our apiaries; and we want to continue protecting the health of our colonies in this way.
In fact, the health of our colonies is so important that we take care to leave enough honey with the bees to take care of all of their feeding needs. Most commercial honey producers harvest so much honey that they have to feed their bees sugar water. We believe this compromises their immune systems and opens the way for disease. We’re blessed that we have not had to medicate our bees in any way. This means the honey is truly pure because the whole hive is pure and healthy!
The arrival of honey bees to Hawai’i
At the first meeting of the Royal Hawaiian Agricultural Society in August 1851 on the island of O’ahu, a committee was appointed to bring the first honey bees into Hawai’i. Henry A. Pierce, partner of Charles Brewer, shipped a “fine hive” from Boston to Honolulu in 1852 on the good ship R. B. Forbes (Krauss 1978). Unfortunately, as the ship passed through the tropics on its way to Cape Horn, the increase in temperature melted the honeycomb and killed the honey bees.
Another colony was ordered from New Zealand at about the same time, but was never shipped due to an apparent misunderstanding (McClellan 1940). A second attempt to ship bees from the U.S. Mainland was made in 1853, again from Boston. Two hives, one packed in ice, were shipped to O’ahu. The hives arrived in poor condition, and were later auctioned to C. R. Bishop, husband of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, for thirteen dollars (Krauss 1978). The bees survived for a short time, then died out. The society then made a public offer of ten dollars to “the person who shall introduce the first honey bee into the islands.”
On 21 October 1857, three hives of German dark bees Apis mellifera mellifera were shipped to Honolulu by William Buck of San Jose, California (Eckert 1951, Krauss 1978) on the American bark Fanny Major (Spoehr 1992). The trip took eighteen days and the colonies survived the journey in good condition. They were purchased by the Society for one hundred dollars each.
The hives were placed under the care of Dr. William Hillebrand in Nu’uanu Valley. There they thrived, and successfully established themselves such that by the following year, the three original hives had increased to nine colonies by swarming (Nieman 1942). Other species of honey bees were soon brought to the Islands. Italian bees Apis mellifera liguistica were purchased in Los Angeles, shipped to San Francisco, and then brought to the Islands on the steamer Lehua in 1880 by Sam G. Wilder (Chamber of Commerce, 1941).
The rise of the Hawaiian beekeeping industry
Following the successful introduction of honey bees in 1857, healthy colonies hived off the nine in Nu’uanu Valley and established feral colonies in the wild of Hawai’i’s forests, then abundant with diverse flora. Before the rapid growth of the industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hawaiian honey bees existed solely in feral colonies or those few hives maintained by hobbyists.
In the late 1890’s, interest in beekeeping rose dramatically for two reasons. U.S. Mainland entrepreneurs saw fortunes in ranching, and subsequently introduced large numbers of cattle to the Islands. Feed for cattle was needed to sustain large populations, so the industry began wide scale cultivation of kiawe.
A native tree of Italy, this species was introduced to Hawaii in 1828 by Father Alexis Bachelot, head of the first Catholic Mission to Hawai’i (Greene 1941). Kiawe grows well in dry hot climates, yields nutritious beans for feeding cattle, shade for roaming herds, sturdy wood for fence posts, and an even and slow burn as charcoal.
To increase kiawe bean yield, honey bee hives were established near ranching operations to promote pollination. In addition, it was found that kiawe nectar produced a very good light honey, so commercial honey production followed.
Kiawe blooms from March until September, and a single kiawe tree with a thirty-foot spread has the potential to produce over two and half pounds of honey yearly (Nieman 1942). Kiawe forests rapidly expanded, and by 1935 one hundred thousand acres on Maui and even larger areas of the island of Hawai’i were covered with the trees, becoming Hawai’i’s foremost nectar source (Nieman 1942).
The first export of honey from Hawai’i to the U.S. Mainland occurred in 1894 with a shipment of eight gallons (Nieman 1942). By 1897, 109,000 pounds were shipped. Oddly, most honey exports were not to U.S. Mainland markets, but to markets in the United Kingdom and Germany (Crawford 1937, Philipp 1953). One contemporary account of honey production noted:
“In February last  an experimental shipment of one thousand cans of honey went to Japan, and in August one hundred tons of island honey, largely the product of the American Sugar Company apiaries, on Molokai, was shipped to San Francisco by F.L. Waldron, the principal part of which was destined for the London market. The shipments were put up in five-gallon tins, two to a case” (Spoehr 1992).
From 1905 to 1916, average honey shipments amounted to forty thousand dollars annually, increasing sharply to a figure of $356,536 in 1918. Though the honey bee disease American Foulbrood and the eradication of the sugarcane leafhopper later took their toll on honey production, average honey shipments from 1918 to 1941 totaled some 1,315,270 pounds (Eckert and Bess 1952).
The peak production record in the Territory occurred in 1918 with 2.4 million pounds produced. Prices for honey were high at this time, some fifteen cents per pound (Philipp 1953), stimulated by the demands of the First World War (Eckert & Bess 1952). By 1919, the industry was valued at over $300,000 (Crawford 1937).
During the 1920-1930s, three events occurred that led to the rapid decline of the Hawaiian beekeeping industry. First, the price of honey dropped from a high of fifteen cents to an all time low of three cents per pound during the Depression (Philipp 1953).
Second, successful control of the sugarcane leafhopper in 1920 (Eckert and Bess 1952) substantially reduced the availability of honeydew as a nectar source for honey bees. Finally, American Foulbrood, a disease affecting developing honey bee brood, was accidentally introduced in 1929 or 1930 on Maui (Eckert 1951).
The eradication of the leafhopper was a boon to the industry. “Honeydew honey” was considered a poor grade of honey and used primarily by the baking trades. In 1905, a detailed chemical study was conducted by D. L. Van Dine and Alice R. Thompson on the characteristics of Hawaiian honey. They judged the honeydew product as “very decidedly abnormal in its chemical composition” (Van Dine 1908).
Van Dine and Thompson discovered that bees preferred floral sources and would only collect honeydew if no other sources were available. In December 1936 a discussion was held at California’s State Beekeepers Association to propose a plan to keep Hawaii”s honeydew product from California markets (Keck 1937).
The Territory’s Board of Commissioners of Agriculture and Forestry and government employees supervising the import of queens understood the ramifications of any accidental introduction of disease and took steps to prevent such an introduction as early as 1908 (Eckert 1950).
Unfortunately, a poor understanding of Foulbrood, coupled with a lack of consistency in hive inspection and management virtually wiped out all colonies in the Islands once it appeared. To eradicate it, colonies were burned on all islands except Lana’i and Ni’ihau where the disease was never established (Eckert 1951). By 1935, few viable honey operations were left and the industry and production drastically slowed (Honey’s 1981).
Despite these problems, exported beeswax reached a high in 1939 with sixty one thousand pounds shipped (Chamber of Commerce 1941). In 1940, honey ranked eighth in value of agricultural food products exported by the Territory. It was surpassed only by the sugar, pineapple, coffee, banana, papaya, potato, and nut industries.
From 1941 to 1952, production was reduced to exports averaging one-half million pounds per year, despite the rise in honey prices caused by World War II (Philipp 1953). In 1952, twenty-five commercial honey producers were doing business in Hawai’i, caring for some 11,900 hives (Philipp 1953).
In 1953, the accidental introduction of the cosmopterygid moth Ithome concolorella Chambers, a kiawe pest, was unwelcome news to a devastated but slowly recovering industry (Namba 1956). Due to these early misfortunes, the Hawaiian honey industry took almost twenty years to recover to its previous levels of production.
Honeybees introduced on Molokai
In 1898, the first bees were brought by E.C. “Pearl City” Smith to J. Munro, the first apiarist on the island. Mr. Munro started the apiaries of the American Sugar Company (ASC), which later became the world’s largest producer of honey (Chamber of Commerce 1941).
Commercial beekeeping began around 1900 and increased under the direction of Moloka’i Ranch Ltd. Some twenty-four hundred colonies were known to exist under Ranch management between 1923-1932 (Eckert 1951). “Asco Brand Kiawe Honey” was the principal product of ASC for many years (Chamber of Commerce 1941), and produced the world’s record honey crop from permanently established apiaries in 1935 – one half million pounds of kiawe blossom honey (Eckert and Bess 1952).
American Foulbrood led to the decline in 1937 with the destruction of several hundred colonies, followed by two thousand two hundred colonies in 1938 (Eckert 1951). From 1938-1948, commercial honey production on Moloka’i virtually ceased.
In 1948, the Ranch tried to revitalize the industry and hired apiarist Allen Luce. When Mr. Luce assumed control, only eighty-six colonies existed, of which thirteen were infected with Foulbrood (Eckert 1951). As of 1953, this disease was successfully eradicated, as no feral swarms were found to have it.
Encouraged by their victory, University of California, Davis researchers continued to study the disease, and purposely infected several colonies at the Moloka’i Ranch with the disease to study resistance-building. As a result, bees demonstrated a greater resistance to Foulbrood, which was due to several factors. Subsequently, steps were taken to reproduce these strains and cross breed in an attempt to increase overall resistance in all races (Eckert 1950, 1951).
(The information above contains excerpts from A History of Honey Bees in the Hawaiian Islands by Kevin M. Roddy and Lorna Arita-Tsutsumi, which can be read in its entirety at http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kroddy/vitae/beekeep.htm.)
Molokai Honeybees Today
Today Molokai is one of the few places even among the Hawaiian Islands that has not been affected by the infestation of the honeybee parasite, varroa mite.
It is one of the few places in the world that provides a safe haven for beekeepers to manage hives with virtually no medication. Foulbrood is virtually nonexistent in domestic colonies that are properly maintained.
Although Molokai Meli LLC is the largest commercial producer of honey on the island of Molokai, we are working with a growing number of farms and individuals teaching them to maintain domestic honeybee colonies on the island.