Of the five farm tours we enjoyed on Hawaii's Big Island this summer, our visit to the apiary at Big Island Bees was my favorite! An apiary is a collection of beehives, like the boxes you see here. Our tour guide Tricia was very knowledgeable and taught us several surprising facts about these endangered little friends that I'll tell you about in this post. The tour area was behind a screen, so we didn't have to worry about the bees getting too close, though the guide said they wouldn't be interested in us anyway as long as we stood still to observe.
After the demonstration, we sat down for a complementary honey tasting. Each jar of Big Island Bees honey is single-floral, meaning it comes from only one type of flower, whether its from the Lehua blossom, the Macadamia Nut blossom, or the Wilelaiki blossom. Three times per year, the honey bee hives are moved around the island to fields far away from humans, where the bees are left to forage and feed.
Wondering what other farm tours we explored? Click here to read my blog post called "5 Farm Tours Across Hawaii’s Big Island + Bonus Activities!"
Don't worry, beekeepers do not take all the honey from a hive when they harvest the sweet stuff for you and me. In the hive stacks you see here, the first two boxes are for the bees to keep as food, and the top box is fair game for Big Island Bees to process and sell. This ensures the bees have enough nutrition to keep their colonies healthy.
The Queen Bee is notoriously difficult to find within a hive because though she is twice the size of her sisters, there are thousands of bees in each stack, and a dozen honeycomb slides within each box. But during the fateful tour we took, the heavens opened for us and the beekeeper found the Queen on the first try! Amazing! You can see her in the photo above, surrounded by her loyal attendants.
- Days 1-3: The baby bee is an egg that looks like a tiny grain of translucent rice.
- Days 4-8: The baby is now a larva, which looks like a small white grub, curled up. Nurse bees first feed larvae royal jelly, then wean them to a mixture of honey and pollen. If a larva is destined to become Queen, they continue eating only royal jelly.
- Days 9-21: The baby pupa starts taking the form of an adult bee, but is pure white with black eyes. Her iconic black and yellow coloring, delicate wings and tiny pollen-catching hairs finish forming during this time until she emerges to get to work.
- Adult: This stage lasts 4 to 6 weeks, where the ever-maturing bee transitions from one job to the next until it has done them all.
Bees are the best team players! Instead of being born into one specific role forever, they have different jobs in the hive over the course of their life.
- Cleaner. One of the first jobs of a new adult bee, cleaning out the honeycomb cell where she was just born, preparing it for a new egg.
- Undertaker. A sad, but necessary job to remove any dead or sick bees from the hive to prevent disease.
- Nurse (and Queen's Attendant). Nurses help feed and maintain young larvae, and some become the Queen's attendants, feeding and cleaning her so she can focus on laying eggs.
- Honey Maker. These gals collect the nectar brought in from the foragers and turn it into honey by fanning it rapidly with their wings, evaporating the moisture and leaving the simple sugars behind.
- Wax Maker. Each bee has glands in her abdomen that allow her to squeeze out wax for building honeycomb.
- Guard. As a honey bee ages, she gains more responsibility, guarding her sisters from dangerous intruders like rodents, bears or other pesky bugs.
- Forager. In the final weeks of her life, a mature honey bee will leave the hive daily to forage for nectar and pollen. Her job is very important, both for her hive and for humans, because she is responsible for pollinating more than one third of the food we eat. Save the bees!
A beekeeper's protective head gear.
The beekeeper told us that contrary to common belief, bees do not "get sleepy" when smoke is applied to their hive. Much like humans, when bees see and smell smoke, their reaction is "oh dang, my house is on fire, better get away from the danger." That's why the beekeeper puffs smoke into the hive to drive them away from a certain section, making it easier to handle the panels of honeycomb without smushing the little ladies.
During the honey tasting after our tour, we sampled the white Ohi'a Lehua honey, thick and crystallized with an understated floral flavor. Our guide recommended stirring it into tea or spreading it on toast for breakfast. Then came the Macadamia Nut Blossom honey, dark and rich with hints of chocolate and a velvety texture. She recommended drizzling it onto pancakes or waffles. Next was the Wilelaiki Blossom honey, collected from the Christmasberry tree, with a naturally peppery finish. She said this honey tastes great when combined with meats and cheeses.
Learn more about the Big Island Bees honey products here.
After the delicious regular honeys, we savored several specialty flavors concocted by the experts at Big Island Bees. We couldn't decide which tasted best—the cinnamon honey, vanilla bean honey, or red chili pepper honey—so we bought them all! Ever the gourmet, Brandon has created special appetizers with each of these unique flavors for our friends and family, like this mouth-watering walnut and goat cheese crostini he drizzled with the chili pepper honey.
Isn't this giftshop the cutest you've ever seen??
Amazing honeycomb art.
A few bee facts that blew my mind:
- Queen Bees are not born, they're made.
- Any female bee larva has the genetics necessary to become a Queen. When a hive needs a new Queen, the nurse bees begin feeding several regular bee larvae royal jelly exclusively, no honey or pollen, until one of the larva emerges and takes her rightful place, sometimes with a fight.
- What is royal jelly? It's a protein-rich secretion that comes from glands on the heads of young nurse bees.
- The Queen Bee grows to be twice as large as her worker bee sisters, with an extra long abdomen for inserting deep into honeycomb to deposit an egg.
- The Virgin Queen.
- When a new Queen Bee is old enough, she flies several miles away from her hive to find a different hive containing drones who could become her mates. This helps prevent inbreeding to protect the genetic diversity of her hive.
- As she flies near this foreign hive, 15 or so drones somehow spot her tiny bee body in the big sky and all race to catch up. Each of them wants to be the first male to mate with her, the virgin queen.
- The drones take turns mating with her, mid-flight. The mating part of their body, the endophallus, is torn from their abdomen and left behind in the Queen after they're done. Each drone immediately falls to his death, having completed his life's purpose. The next drone to mate with the Queen removes the previous guy's endophallus and repeats the process. If you're interested, click here to read all about a honey bee's external and internal anatomy.
- Once the Queen Bee is filled with sperm, she returns to her hive to start laying eggs. She won't need to mate ever again, using the 100 million sperm she received that one time to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life.
- As she lays eggs all day, she chooses whether an egg will be fertilized or not depending on the size of the honeycomb where she's laying the egg. Fertilized eggs grow into female worker bees and unfertilized eggs develop into male drones. The average hive's ratio of female to male bees is 100 to 1.
- A Queen Bee lives a very busy life laying 1,500 to 2,000 eggs all day, every day. When she grows too old to do this job anymore, instead of throwing on a sundress and announcing her retirement, her bee sisters sense that her pheromone output is diminishing and tightly surround her. They vibrate their little bodies rapidly to increase her body temperature, causing her to overheat and die. No party, no cake, just work work work, then death.
- In Hawaii, Queens typically live for 2-5 years because the favorable weather conditions allow them to work nonstop. On the mainland United States, bees can live up to 7 years because they are able to rest and hibernate during the cold winters.
- Inside the hive, the active honey bees' bodies keep the stack a balmy 93 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the winter.
Wondering what honey bees eat or don't eat? This fascinating article spells it out. Fermented honey cocktails and bee bread? Yep! Wood or meat? Nope!
Mahalo for reading about our Big Island Bees adventure! Find out what else we enjoyed on Hawaii's Big Island in these blog posts: