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Hawaii County beekeepers hope Bill 144 will open up new vistas
By Grassroot Institute @ 9:43 PM :: 1075 Views :: Hawaii County , Agriculture, Small Business

Hawaii County beekeepers hope Bill 144 will open up new vistas

from Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, April 18, 2024

Zoning is a hot-button issue in Hawaii, primarily as it relates to increasing the housing supply. But the latest guest on “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii shed light on what could be an unexpected beneficiary of zoning reform — the beekeeping industry. 

Harry Holm, president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association, said honey sales in Hawaii total “a little bit over $3 million,” but more significant is the state’s export of queen bees to Canada and the mainland U.S., which generates more than $10 million annually. The bees also produce a wax used for surfboards, and propolis, used in candles, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. 

Speaking with host Keli‘i Akina, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii president, Holm said beekeepers on Hawaii Island could be doing even better if the county would change a few rules.

For example, he said, Hawaii County treats beehives like piggeries and other livestock production. That means they are permitted on only agriculturally zoned land and must be at least 1,000 feet away from an undefined “major roadway,” making beekeeping on some agricultural lands difficult and backyard beekeeping outright illegal. 

“When we started looking into this, we were quite shocked,” Holm said. “In San Francisco … you can have hives anywhere you want and as many as can be supported by the local vegetation. You can have hives in Manhattan, you can have hives in LA, but you can’t have hives in Hilo.” 

Holm said a bill at the Hawaii County Council could soon change that — Bill 144 — by removing the setback requirement of 1,000 feet and allowing beehives in all residential zones.

After all, Holm said, “the bee can travel anywhere from up to three to five miles from their hive to forage, so it has no idea what zone it’s going to go to or from.” 

Holm said he is optimistic the bill will pass.

“We haven’t really received any pushbacks directly,” he said, “just a lot of questions about, you know, ‘What happens if I have a problem?’ And, you know, ‘Who can I go to?’ And it’s spelled out in the bill.”


4-8-24 “Hawaii Together” with guest Harry Holm

Akina: Aloha, everyone, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m Keli’i Akina, your host and president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

As you know, Grassroot is always looking out for ways to manage and change our regulations that the government puts upon us so that we have an optimal environment for a good economy and for living life.

Well, we often talk about zoning laws, and when we talk about zoning laws, we’re usually talking about housing. But zoning laws cover a lot more than just housing. 

Today we’re going to talk about how they affect one kind of enterprise in particular — you might be surprised — beekeeping. 

My guest today is going to share with us information about the importance of beekeeping here in Hawaii, the scope and breadth of the beekeeping business on the Big Island, and its national and even international significance.

And we’re also going to talk about how Hawaii County zoning regulations could be reformed or changed to help beekeepers have even more of an economic impact and social impact than they already do.

So would you please welcome to our program today, Harry Holm. Harry is president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association. Harry, welcome to the program. Aloha.

Harry Holm: Aloha, thank you for having me. 

Akina: And you’re there in Hilo right now?

Holm: Correct.

Akina: Well, what a beautiful place to be doing business and to be living and so forth. How long have you lived on the Big Island?

Holm: Coming on 10 years now.

Akina: Well, you are the president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association. Can you tell our viewers just a little bit about that group, how it got started and what its mission is?

Holm: Well, actually the association got started in around 1984. We were just a group of the beekeepers basically getting together every once in a while just to talk story. And that’s the way it was for quite some time.

About 12, 13 years ago, we actually started to get a little bit more organized. We opened up a teaching apiary, and we invited the public in two Saturdays a month. So if you were interested in beekeeping, or just a beginning beekeeper, and you wanted to get some information, then you had a place to come and actually get hands-on.

Interestingly, we’re also very big in education. We give talks to anybody who wants to hear about bees. We do talks at libraries and schools. 

And every year we host the Hawaiian Honey Challenge

Akina: Ah.

Holm: And it’s a challenge for all beekeepers throughout the entire state, where they can kind of compete. 

We have two sets of judging. We have a formal judging that’s not open to the public. And then we have on the first Friday in November in Hilo, which is Black & White Night, we have a public tasting. And members of the public can come taste the honey, pick their favorite and then, you know, the winners are announced.

And it’s basically bragging rights for the beekeepers. They also get awards. 

But the big thing for us is to expose the public to locally raw honey.

Most people just know the honey that they see at the store but aren’t familiar and they think that, you know, honey tastes the same when it definitely does not.

Akina: Well, Harry, tell me what is the difference between the kind of honey you might pick up when you go into a grocery store — maybe a national chain, a national brand — versus this raw honey that you’re talking about that is grown here in Hawaii and on the Big Island. What are the differences?

Holm: Well, the differences are really huge, because, first, the honey that’s brought in in the big chains and things, they’re all blended honey. The companies want to make sure that the color is always the same and the taste is always the same. Unfortunately, you don’t really know if you’re getting real honey and it’s not altered.

And with locally produced honey, you get the wide variety of flavors. You know, you have macnut [macadamia nut; it’s going to taste a little bit different than citrus or avocado or lychee.

And in some cases, the flavors, depending on the combination of nectar in those flowers, tastes can range from neutral, little, to coffee, to we’ve had one that people have said tasted like cherry cola, maple, bacon, and just a variety.

When we do the public tasting, we have them all lined up, and we separate them by colors: light, medium and dark. And people assume because they see a table full of light honey that they’re all gonna be the same. And they’re absolutely shocked when they start tasting it and none of them taste the same.

Akina: How about that? Now Harry, I’ve just learned something because I’m not a honey connoisseur … Well, not yet, But, I have to say, this is indeed the sweetest program that I’ve had on air and maybe I’ll come over and visit your honey competition.

Now, just tell us a little bit about your own background. I assume you are a beekeeper.

Holm: Yes. Yeah. 

Akina: How did you get involved in the craft?

Holm: Well, I actually got involved in the craft about, I would say, about eight years ago. I was living on a farm and the owner of the property had a hive — somebody else was taking care of it — and they — I’m not sure what happened to them if they left the island or I don’t really recall — but here’s a hive that the owner didn’t want to deal with because he was kind of afraid of bees and I volunteered to do that.

So, you know, reading a lot and watching a lot of YouTube videos, I also benefited from being with, I mean, going to the public learning apiary from the Big Island Beekeepers Association, so I attended some meetings and I basically joined up and, you know, been working with bees and BIBA since then.

Akina: Well how about that? Now, I understand that Hawaii plays an inordinately large role in supplying queen bees throughout the world. In particular, we supply, as you shared with us earlier, about a quarter of all the queen bees that are sent to Canada and about — no, I’m sorry, actually more than that to Canada, about three-fourths — and about a quarter to the United States. Tell me about it.

Holm: Yes, actually those numbers are a little different now. We used to supply about 25% of queens to the mainland. Now it’s closer to 30-35%, which if you think about what bees pollinate — almonds, all sorts of berries, oranges in Florida, for example — you’re looking at a multi-billion dollar for agriculture on the mainland.

Here in Hawaii, it represents approximately $220 million worth of agriculture. And so they’re kind of like our silent heroes. 

One of the advantages that we have here on the Big Island is we have no winter, and so we can produce all year round, and so, with the massive die-offs on the mainland — which has been around 40% — they can’t afford to take the time to grow queens and then wait for workers and for them to go out. They want to hit the ground running, and that’s why they purchase queens from us. 

Canada is closer to 75% of their queens from us. I don’t know what the dollar value impact for Canadian agriculture is, but I’ve heard that if you just think about the various fruits and vegetables that bees pollinate, and you think a third of that is due to the Big Island.

Also it represents, on the Big Island, it represents a little over $10 million in revenue and employment of a little over 70 people.

Akina: Well, I didn’t know that Hawaii played such a significant role in the worldwide market for queen bees. But let me ask you a little bit more specific question. 

Holm: Sure. 

Akina: Are queen bees the main product that Hawaii Island beekeepers sell, or do they also sell honey? And which do they sell more of?

Holm: Well, we do sell honey. Honey sales — the stats from a few years ago was a little bit over $3 million. I believe it was like $3.2 or $3.3 million in just honey.

We also sell bee products like wax, propolis, andn you known it’s used for, you know, whole line of, you know, candles and cosmetics and pharmaceuticals use them. So there’s a whole thing behind not just honey. And most people don’t know that.

As a matter of fact, for example, there is a wax that’s made from honey. Mostly, that’s used for board wax on surfboards. And it just goes on and on.

Akina: Amazing. Now, we wanted to talk with you because of the potential economic impact of making things easier on our producers of queen bees and the honey growers and so forth.

Holm: You know, the queen bees are obviously the top and really an important industry. One of the things that you need to keep in mind is that we cannot import bees to Hawaii.

The only thing we can bring into Hawaii is bee semen, but we cannot bring any bees in. 

It’s strictly controlled for the very simple reason we don’t have Africanized bees ]also known as “killer bees”[ here in the state. And we definitely don’t want them because if we ever got Africanized bees, ]the[ industry would be destroyed.

Akina: OK. So that’s not the way to go to increase the industry output, but there is a proposal that you have before the Legislature now in this session. It’s Bill 144 and that would help the beekeepers in your industry to… 

Holm: Yes. Yes.

Akina: Tell us a little bit about that and in particular how changing the zoning laws a bit can make a real difference in terms of our productivity for beekeepers.

Holm: Well, to start off with, the current law is that in the past — and nowadays no one knows exactly how or why it happened, but that’s now irrelevant — apiaries got put into, they were lumped in with cows and pigs. And with piggeries, you can’t have them 1,000 feet from a major roadway.

The problem is, “major roadway” is not defined in the legislation. There was a queen breeder on the Kona side that was forced to move his entire operation because his bees were about 980 feet from the roadway. And at that time they determined that any road that’s an egress to a property can be considered a major roadway.

So that was a major, major problem. There’s a lot of farms, on ag land, that cannot keep bees because of that. 

You’ve got a lot of stretches of property that might be many, many acres, but if they’re long and narrow, and you have a road on one side and a road on the other side, you might not be able to have any bees there.

The other problem was, if you look at the animal section, that they classified bees as pets, and there it’s 75 feet. So what are they?

 And just as a side note, honey is actually classified as a specialty crop by the USDA ]U.S. Department of Agriculture[. So that’s a problem.

Backyard beekeepers, for example, technically are not legally allowed to because that’s residential. And we’ve got many, many — I can’t tell you how many — people have reached out to us and told us, “You know, I’ve got this avocado tree or I’ve got this citrus tree and it, like, doesn’t produce,” and, “Hey, I found out, you know, my neighbor is, you know, put a hive in and now all my trees are blown up.”

So what we wanted to do is make sure that beekeepers can be beekeepers regardless of what the zoning is. So this bill removes apiaries from all zoning. 

Akina: Ahhh. 

Holm: So, if you have a building in downtown Hilo and you want to put a roof garden on top, you could have a hive in your garden on your rooftop. Currently, you cannot. And so that’s why it’s kind of important.

It’s important that we keep genetics. It’s important that we keep our own bees healthy. We lost about 35]%[ to 40% of our bees. And when they had the Leilani eruption, you know, we lost, I believe it was like 3,800 acres of vegetation. So it’s resources for bees and we also lost a lot of bees.

Akina: Your analysis of the zoning regulations that apply to bees and beekeepers is fascinating because a lot of zoning regulations are just difficult to understand, but the story you’re telling tells us that the zoning regulations may have made sense at one time, but definitely need to be revised. 

How about the other counties? How do they regulate this outside of the Big Island and as well across the United States and Canada?

Holm: Well, I’ll give you an example. I mean, this whole thing started with one of our members, who was actually one of the board members at the time, that was forced to have his hive removed because a neighbor across the street was complaining. 

He was just a problem neighbor and he had nothing to do because two houses down from him that person had two hives and that was fine. And he was forced to move his hives.

When we started looking into this, we were quite shocked that, for example, in San Francisco, that has small lots, densely populated, has no regulation. You can have hives anywhere you want and as many as can be supported by the local vegetation. 

You can have hives in Manhattan, you can have hives in LA, but you can’t have hives in Hilo. That made no sense to me at all, and to our organization. So we started this whole thing about, “Let’s look into this.” 

Some ]jurisdictions[ have regulations regarding the size of lots. Others have no regulations as far as sizes of lots, or how many you can have. Some states have actual bee inspectors that come out and they’re very pro beekeepers and you know, they try to match you with mentors or organizations that can help out.

Akina: Well, how do you actually transport your products to Canada and the mainland? Through the mail?

Holm: Yes, through the mail.

Akina: Or FedEx? And tell me, what are the regulations, locally and internationally even, regarding the transport?

Holm: Well, I mean, they are shipped from here, mostly by, you know, U.S. mail. I’m not sure if they do FedEx, but, you know, they’re live. 

They’re in a special, like, container and there’s a queen and there are some small bees in there, the queen’s attendants, that go with them, and it’s similar to how we ship chickens and other live animals.

Akina: Now what about beekeepers who want to sell some of their honeys at farmers markets or stores? 

Holm: Yes. 

Akina: Are there any county or state regulations that make it more difficult?

Holm: Actually, no, there really isn’t. There are state regulations in regards to labeling. There are certain things that you’re required to put on the label, and that’s really it.

And as far as a, you know, you only need to have, like, a certified processing if you’re doing more than 500 gallons a year, but the great majority of people don’t reach that, especially the smaller producers. 

A lot of them sell at farmers markets, roadside stands, and some sell online. And a lot of those people, small businesses, I mean, they’re not going to make a lot of money, but, you know, they make enough money to pay a bill or two, buy their kids’ school supplies, and so on.

So one of the goals was if we are able to bring in where we eliminate zoning, then all these people will be in compliance. And that’s really important. 

The other thing to understand is that a beehive can be on ag land. The bee can travel anywhere from up to three to five miles from their hive to forage. So it has no idea what zone it’s going to go to or from. ]laughter[

And so you can have a hive in one place and it can be foraging in a residential area. So it can forage in a residential area, but the place that it forages can’t have a beekeeper there. Which again, makes no sense. And so that was one of the things that we did.

To placate some of their rules and stuff, we negotiated down to “Uou can have a hive up to 25 feet from the property line or 15 feet if you have a flyover barrier.” And that’s basically it. 

We were working with a working group to go through this and it was mostly a bunch of beekeepers, from hobbyists to commercial to queen breeders. 

We also had, obviously ]Puna Councilwoman[ Ashley Kierkiewicz was leading our Council member, and we had people from the state Health Department, we had local ag department, planning, corporate counsel. 

So we brought all these people in to potential stakeholders to kind of really go through this. We didn’t want to make the same mistake that was made, you know, decades ago, where they were just going to throw something out there or have, “OK, you want a residential, then fine, we’ll just do one bill for residential and exclude everyone else.” So, I thought that was unfair.

Akina: Harry, you’ve worked very hard on this and with respect to Bill 144, have you received any pushback and what are your responses to those who may have?

Holm: We haven’t really received any pushbacks directly. There was just a lot of questions about, you know, “What happens if I have a problem?” And, you know, “Who can I go to?” And it’s spelled out in the bill.

One of the things also that is important to note: Part of the bill is best practice. And it’s kind of an industry known. And if you follow the best practices, you’re really not going to have an issue. If you communicate with your neighbors, you’re not going to have an issue. 

There’s little things in the best practice: Have a water supply there so the bees don’t travel to the neighbor’s pool or something like that. In order not to confuse the bees, don’t have your porch light on at night, close to your hive. A lot of little things like that, that are best practice, but also common sense.

Akina: Harry, what would you say the future of your industry is here in Hawaii? And how easily could people get involved in that?

Holm: Well, they can easily get involved if they really are, you know, interested in it. The investment is minimal, and you don’t have to learn a lot. If you’re really interested, you should find a local bee organization, club, association, or find a local beekeeper and, you know, for potential mentoring. 

And, yes, most people, you know, might be interested in like one or two hives. They’re not interested in more hives because, you know, they don’t want another job. And that’s really understandable.

Akina: Well, I have to tell you, ]I’m[ very proud of you and your colleagues who are standing up to fight for the right to actually make a living and to build an economy here in Hawaii. It’s an important thing you do, and as I pointed out earlier, I’m just amazed at the role that the Hawaii beekeeping industry plays globally. And this is something that we should actually be very proud of and something we should actually be expanding. 

Holm: Absolutely 

Akina: So I wish you the best on Bill 144. What did the prospects look like in this legislative session?

Holm: Well, they look pretty good. I mean it went through the first committee and now it’s in the hands of planning. They’re going to review it and come back with comments. I can’t see them having any real comments since they were part of the working group.

So it’s going to come back to the legislative group and then, if there’s really no change, it’s going to go to the full Council and hopefully there’s going to be one reading on the Hilo side, one reading on the Kona side, and hopefully, you know, by within the next five, maybe six months, it’ll be passed. Well, yeah, assuming that the Council will pass it, ]and the mayor will[ sign it.

Akina: I’ve got a quick question before you leave today. 

Holm: Yes.

Akina: What have you and the Big Island Beekeepers Association members learned about politics …  

Holm: Laughs. 

Akina: … in a venture of trying to do business. What have you learned?

Holm: Quite a bit. We were never, you know, I’d never have never been involved in anything like this. And so we’ve learned a lot about, mostly, negotiations from different departments. 

At times it has been frustrating because you’re dealing with non-beekeepers or people that have no knowledge of bees and don’t realize the impact. 

We have talked about, you know, the global effect from bees here. One thing that’s not really mentioned too much is food security within our own islands. And that’s what’s another thing to keep in mind. It’s really important to have bees. 

Whether you’re just the one hive backyard beekeeper is almost just as important as the big commercial guys.

Akina: Terrific. Well, Harry, thank you so much for all you’re doing, and I want to wish you the very best. Thank you for being on the program today.

Holm: Sure. Thank you very much, and we do appreciate the opportunity to be here.

Akina: Mahalo. Well, everyone, my guest today has been Harry Holm, president of the Big Island Beekeepers Association. And what a delightful conversation this has been. I hope you’ve learned something. I certainly have. And it has been, indeed, a sweet program. 

I’m Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute. You’ve been watching “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii. Until next time, aloha. Aloha.



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