OHIA LEHUA: THE TREE THAT BEES AND BEEKEEPERS LOVE
What makes Hawaiian honey so unique? Well, for one, the terroir of our little volcanic islands allows for biodiversity that is unlike any other in the world with plant species that exist only in the Hawaiian archipelago. While some species are found throughout the Hawaiian Islands, others grow only on a specific island or even in just a single location on one island—and nowhere else in the world! With its mild tropical weather, Hawaii offers a happy home also to many introduced plant species. Although some of these newcomers are highly invasive, such as the albizia (Falcataria moluccana), melochia (Melochia umbelatta), and kiawe (prosopis pallida) trees, others have defined Hawaii’s major agricultural sectors, such as sugar cane, coffee, pineapple, papaya, and more recently, cacao and vanilla.
In Hawaii, the introduced honeybee has developed a keen taste for both introduced and native plants, Honey from the introduced and invasive kiawe tree, is well-known in Hawaii for its light, creamy consistency. Honey made from the blossoms of the native Hawaiian Ohia Lehua tree (Metrosideros polymorpha) is considered to be one of the rarest types of honey in the world as this plant species exists only in Hawaii. When in bloom, honeybees will forage almost exclusively from this native tree, producing the cream-colored Ohia Lehua honey varietal that is the pride and joy of Hawaii's beekeepers.
The native Ohia Lehua (or ʻŌhiʻa Lehua) tree is a flowering evergreen from the myrtle family and is endemic to the six largest islands of Hawaii. It grows in all elevations and varies in size from a small shrub to a tree of more than 100 feet. The tree produces a brilliant display of colorful pompom-like flowers, most commonly fiery red but also creamy white, yellow, salmon, and orange. An incredibly robust tree, the Ohia Lehua grows in rugged, barren environments and is among the first plants to grow on the hardened rock of new lava flows.
[Ohia Lehua trees in bloom at the summit of Kilauea Volcano with Halemaumau Crater in the background]
The relationship between the Ohia Lehua tree and its home in the mist rainforests of the volcanic islands is evident in the parts of its Hawaiian name with lehu meaning to burn, ua meaning rain, and 'ohi, meaning to gather (referring to gathering rain). Hawaiian mythology presents a more dramatic picture of the symbolic relationship of the tree to its volcanic origins. According to legend, the fiery volcano goddess, Pele, fell in love with the handsome warrior, ʻŌhiʻa. She approached him with her seductive advances; however, ʻŌhiʻa rejected Pele, pledging his eternal love for the beautiful maiden, Lehua. Jealous and angry about being rejected, Pele changed ʻŌhiʻa into an ugly, twisted tree. Lehua was devastated by her lover’s transformation. The other gods, who witnessed Pele’s actions, took pity on Lehua but it was too late to undo Pele’s unjust deed. So, they transformed her into a beautiful flower. They placed Lehua onto the ʻŌhiʻa tree; thus, forever uniting the two lovers as the ʻŌhiʻa Lehua tree. Still today, it is said that a Lehua flower plucked from the Ohia tree will cause the sky to fill with rain, the tears of the lovers separated once again.
Ancient Hawaiians used the Ohia Lehua tree for many purposes, carving its hardwood into kapa cloth beaters, poi pounding boards, clubs, daggers, and sculptures, and for building structures. They used the flowers medicinally and for lei making. The nectar fed native birds whose feathers were used in hula adornments. Like the native birds, today, honeybees also feed on the tree’s nectar, thereby producing the highly-prized Ohia Lehua honey varietal, which is celebrated for its mildly sweet taste, floral fragrance, and quickly crystallizing texture.
[New buds and bursts of pompom-like blossoms hang heavy on an Ohia Lehua tree at the summit of Kilauea volcano, Volcanoes National Park, HI]
To ensure an abundant crop of Ohia Lehua honey this year, we placed two of our hives onto a small piece of our land located adjacent to the Nanawale Forest Reserve. This nearby rainforest is now heavily populated with tall, gangly Ohia Lehua trees that sprouted on the once barren lava-covered lands after the Lava Flow of 1840. Between May and July, these two bee colonies enjoyed the ease of foraging among the Ohia Lehua trees with their abundant bursts of red blossoms that practically ooze with nectar. Pualani Bee Farm’s Ohia Lehua honey derived from our bees’ sojourn at their Nanawale ‘summer camp’ is plentiful, delicious, and available for purchase through our online SHOP.