A SPOONFUL OF SCIENCE AND A JAR FULL OF HONEY
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
VOLCANOES, HONEY PRODUCTION, AND BEE GENETICS
Pualani Bee Farmʻs location on the lower flanks of Kilauea volcano in the district of Puna on Hawaii Island has an especially important role in the production of varietal honeys. The farm is located just a few miles from the coastal tip of Kilauea’s eastern rift, which descends into the Big Island’s ocean depths. For centuries, indeed millennia, the area has been known for Kilauea’s episodic eruptions, including the last great outpouring of magma between May and September 2018 that inundated the volcano’s lower eastern rift zone (LERZ) just a few miles from our farm.
The genesis of this record-breaking eruption began in 1983, when towering lava fountains spewed out of newly opened fissures (cracks in the earth) in the upper rift area of Kilauea, just east of the volcano’s summit. The fiery fountains eventually formed a cone, named Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, from which molten lava flowed on an almost continuous basis for 35 years, traveling from the upper reaches of Kilauea to the coastline. Decades of inundations followed, covering huge areas of Kilauea’s southeastern flank with a’a and pahoehoe lava flows that emerged from various fissures, lava lakes, lava tubes, and vents associated with the formation of Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō.
In May 2018, new fissures dramatically broke out from Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō’s “plumbing system” in the lower eastern rift zone (LERZ) in the subdivision of Leilani Estates. Over the next three months, Kilauea spewed out massive amounts of lava from a number of these new fissures. Like Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō, the now infamous “Fissure 8” developed into a cone from which emerged a river of molten lava stretching 9 miles down to the coastline, wiping out the oceanfront community of Kapoho, filling in Kapoho Bay, and forming a new peninsula that now juts out one mile from where the former coastline used to be.
[Kilauea's Fissure 8 cone erupting in the early morning of June 28, 2018, in the Lower East Rift Zone. Photograph: United States Geological Survey / Public domain]
Just as abruptly as the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption had begun in January 1983, it finally ended in September 2018, making it the longest and most voluminous outpouring of lava from the volcano’s eastern rift zone in more than 500 years. The Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption also earned Kilauea—considered the world’s most active volcano—the distinction of being the longest-lived rift zone eruption known to global history. According to the USGS, this 35 year long eruption covered 55.6 miles2, added 439 acres of new land to Hawaii Island’s southeastern shores, destroyed 215 structures, and buried 8.9 miles of highway with lava as thick as 115 feet.
Between 1983 and 2018, the Pu‘u ‘Ō‘ō eruption, combined with the volcanic activity at Kilauea’s summit in Halemaʻumaʻu crater, released volcanic gases and ash into the lower levels of the atmosphere. Consequently, large swathes of Hawaii Island, including parts of Puna District, experienced localized weather patterns, including vog (volcanic fog), heavy cloud cover, and acid rain. After the eruption ended in September 2018, the air began to clear. Areas with persistent vog, clouds, and rain cover began to experience increasingly clear and sunny days as new weather patterns developed throughout Kilauea’s rift zones. These gradual changes impacted also localized vegetation dynamics, which in turn, created shifts in honey production as well.
In Lower Puna, for example, beekeepers have noticed shifts in the timing, duration, and expanse of flowering trees and plants—a sort of ecstatic dance of ecological re-balancing. These changes have had a direct effect on nectar flows, which during Kilauea’s eruptive phase arrived on relatively predictable schedules. Beekeepers could project the timing and yields of their hives’ honey production, including the timely seasons for harvesting univarietal (single species) honey, such as Macadamia nut blossoms, Christmas Berry (aka Wilelaiki), and, of course, the prized ʻŌhiʻa Lehua honeys. Since the end of the eruption, however, beekeepers have noticed that certain plants are now blossoming earlier or later than they used to, some for shorter or longer periods of time, and yet others at diverse episodic intervals. These changes have posed challenges to large-scale apiaries on the island, with noticeably reduced yields and erratic varietal schedules as plant life in eastern Hawaii Island adjusts to the new atmospheric and weather conditions. At Pualani Bee Farm, the shifts in vegetation dynamics blessed us with an unforeseen gift recently: a small but exquisite late summer harvest of a classic ʻōhiʻa lehua varietal, now available in limited quantity through our online shop.
[Pualani ʻŌhiʻa Lehua Honey, our first single estate harvest of this prized varietal. Photograph: Pualani Bee Farm]
The ʻōhiʻa lehua tree (Metrosideros polymorpha) is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and carries strong cultural connection to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, whose abode is in Kilauea volcano. The ʻōhiʻa lehua plant is the inspiration behind a well-known Hawaiian legend of two lovers separated by Peleʻs fiery jealousy. According to legend, one day Pele spotted the handsome warrior ʻŌhiʻa in the forests and took an immediate fancy to him. However, ʻŌhiʻa was already in love with the delicate, kind, and beautiful Lehua, so he ignored Pele’s advances. This infuriated the volatile goddess who in retribution turned ʻŌhiʻa into a twisted tree and then vanished, leaving the beautiful Lehua devastated with grief. Lehua pleaded with the other gods to bring back her beloved ʻŌhiʻa but Pele’s power was too strong. So, the gods turned Lehua into a lovely red flower, set her upon the tree, and re-united the two lovers in the form of the strong and enduring plant, the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree. It is therefore said that plucking the red blossom from the tree will cause the skies to fill with rain, representing tears of grief of the two lovers torn apart once again.
The ʻōhiʻa lehua is often the first tree that takes root on the bare basalt rock of new lava flows, eventually forming forests of gnarled shrubs and tall, tortured-looking trees with ovoid silvery-green leaves. Growing on the bare, sometimes still hot lava of recent flows, the ʻōhiʻa lehua appear to struggle for life in almost impossible conditions. Yet, in the spring their bright, flame red, powder-puff-like blossoms playfully dot the seemingly barren volcanic landscape.
[Ohia lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha). Kona, Hawaii, Photograph: Narrissa Spies / CC BY-SA]
Honeybees love to forage among the red ʻōhiʻa lehua blossoms, from which they collect nectar that allows them to produce a naturally crystallized, almost solid, cream-colored honey. One of the world’s rarest varietals, ʻōhiʻa lehua honey is the pride of Hawaii’s beekeepers and the joy of honey enthusiasts around the world! Since the lands immediately surrounding Pualani Bee Farm were formed by both ancient and recent lava flows, there are older and newer ʻōhiʻa lehua forests just inland from the farm, within our bees’ foraging range, making it likely that Pualani Bee Farm can expect springtime harvests of ʻōhiʻa lehua honey when the trees blossoms are especially abundant.
Having received our first self-managed hives in May 2020, we had missed the spring ʻōhiʻa lehua nectar flow. Under “normal” circumstances (ergo during Kilauea’s eruptions) we would have to wait until the late spring or early summer of 2021 to introduce our first single estate ʻōhiʻa lehua varietal. However, at the beginning of August 2020, we were in for a great surprise. We removed a fully capped honey super (a box into which bees deposit surplus honey reserves) from Hive #3, in order to replace it with another containing specialized frames to help the bees produce comb honey rounds. The freshly extracted honey had an almost opaque buttery yellow color, not the clear amber we had expected of Pualani's Tropical Wildflower Honey varietal more typical of summer harvests. Initially, we assumed the light color may have been a result of a high concentration of nectar from the profusely flowering albizia trees on our neighbor's property. But, within days, the honey began to crystallize and, to our astonishment, it quickly transformed into the tell-tale cream-colored, opaque density that is the signature traits of ʻōhiʻa lehua honey!
Oddly enough, hive #2, which is located about 12 inches away from hive #3, had produced the seasonally characteristic Tropical Wildflower varietal, with its clear amber-colored liquid and layered floral sweetness. Perplexed by this unexpected but warmly welcomed late summer harvest of our first season of single estate Pualani ʻŌhiʻa Lehua Honey, I turned to my beekeeping mentor, Scott Nelson, to clarify the unexpected timing of this single species harvest. Scott explained that it was a direct result of our local environment and flora “acclimatizing” to the atmospheric changes that came with the end of Kilauea’s 35-year eruption and the unpredictable impact this was having on the timing of nectar flows.
The volcano, Scott explained, was not the only factor contributing to this surprisingly late ʻohiʻa lehua honey harvest. The foraging habits and diet of a honeybee colony is determined as much by the availability of food sources as it is by the queen’s genetic lineage, which determines certain predilections in foraging behaviors, habits, and food preferences. Certain honeybees will have genetic traits akin to “gourmet” epicurean tendencies, with refined taste preferences for high quality, nutritionally superior floral species. Thus, they are likely to produce the coveted univarietals, such as ʻŌhiʻa Lehua or Kiawe (Prosopis pallida, a kind of mesquite tree) honey. Other genetic lineages are characterized by bees with “gourmand” eating habits, gorging themselves on whatever is available, thus producing the equally delicious (for us humans) multivarietals, such as the wildflower honeys.
[The color differences of bee pollen granules from neighboring hives at Pualani Bee Farm.]
So, despite the close proximity of hives #2 and #3 to each other, each bee colony has different genetic lineages and traits, inherited from their queens, that contribute to the diverse nature, quality, taste, and even type of honey they produce within a similar time frame. This genetic variation in foraging traits is also evident in the color of the bee pollen granules that we collect from these same two hives every day. Rarely are the color combinations or ratios of pollen colors similar, providing visual evidence of our bees’ different eating habits.
Once again, always learning more about our new bees, I am blown away by the important connections between honeybees and their environment, including both the interior life and times of the colony within the hive as well as the exterior world with which they interact to feed themselves and to provide humans with the gift of sweet indulgences.