She stood unfazed as a swarm of busy bees buzzed all around her. Everyone else was covered head to toe in oversized, white bee suits. She wore a sleeveless gray top and black pants. The only protective gear on her was a beekeeper’s hat.
Danielle Downey, the State of Hawai'i’s bee expert, has a special relationship with the creatures that are more often feared than appreciated for their vital contributions to our food supply and environment.
Bees are a central part of Hawai'i’s economy. And while most of us are oblivious to this fact, our environment and food supply rely on bees to pollinate plants, to fertilize seeds and to produce fruit and vegetables. Without bees, we would not have fruits such as watermelon, which is entirely dependent on bees. In 2009, watermelons brought about $1.4 million in revenue for the state. Other dependent crops include other melons, mango, lychee, avocados, macadamia nuts, squash and cucumbers.
“It’s a simple but imperative relationship between pollinators and the food at our table,” said Downey, Apiary Specialist with the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture.
Since 2007, these local bees have been threatened with the discovery in Hawai'i of parasitic mites called varroa mites. The mites crawl onto the bees and suck their blood and, at the same time, spread viruses, bacteria, and diseases. Another pest, the small hive beetle, arrived in Hawai'i last year and with the varroa mite, they have decimated local bee populations. The small hive beetles – which are attracted to weak, stressed bee colonies – leave a slimy film over everything, covering the bees and ruining beekeepers’ equipment and ruining the honey. The invasive beetles can fly for many miles, live over a year, and lay hundreds of eggs that hatch into maggots.
In December 2010, Russell Kokubun was appointed as the Chairperson of the Agriculture Department and recognized that the state needed to hire a specialist to handle the magnitude of the problems caused by these two pests. The state had secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Chairperson Kokubun immediately put these federal funds to use by hiring Downey to help local beekeepers and farmers.
“My ultimate goal is keeping healthy bees and ensuring pollination needs of agriculture are met,” said Downey.
Protecting the essential and indispensable insects from destructive pests is what drives the 38-year-old Downey at work. Her fascination with bees began almost 20 years ago during her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota, where she conducted research on bees.
One of the most important components of Downey’s job is to educate other beekeepers on these pests and techniques and pesticides to keep their bees and hives prosperous. She travels to all the islands to meet with beekeepers, listening to problems they encounter and offering assistance and information. Downey hopes that her work will complement work that has been ongoing by the University of Hawai'i at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) to assist local beekeepers.
So what can the public do to help the bee industry in Hawai'i? Downey suggests buying local honey – honey collected in different areas taste different depending on the flowers in that area. Homeowners can plant habitats that attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. Simple actions, such as not spraying pesticides and other chemicals when flowers are in bloom, reduce harm to pollinators.
“I like helping people see bees in a new way, for their gentleness, complexity and value to us,” said Downey. “It’s great to have a job that allows me to be outside doing field work in addition to office and lab work. Hawaii is a great place for that.”
Written by Amy Lee
Video by Puanani Akaka
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