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'Nightmare' Parasite Spreading Through Hawaiian Beehives

A tiny mite that devastated honeybee populations on the U.S. mainland showed up in Honolulu hives for the first time this month and has now been confirmed in bee colonies across the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

The infestation by varroa mites has led the state to ask beekeepers to restrict transport of bees around the islands. There are concerns it could threaten the Big Island's thriving queen bee export industry, which has so far tested free of the mites.

"This is going to be for us a nightmare," said Michael Kliks, head of the Hawaii Beekeepers' Association and owner of Manoa Honey Co. "When I saw that mite I knew exactly what it was. I knew exactly what it meant and I fell to my knees and almost began to weep because it's inexpressible what that sea change is for us in Hawaii."

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The parasite caused huge die-offs in North America when it first appeared there in 1987, and may be a factor in the even more catastrophic current mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder, which has destroyed more than half of some mainland beekeepers' hives and wiped out most wild honeybees there.

Kliks discovered the mites April 6 on a pupa contained in an abandoned hive he recovered in Honolulu and immediately notified state agriculture officials.

Since then the mites have been confirmed in hives in nearby areas.

Hives are still being checked elsewhere on Oahu but it is too late to hope to eradicate or even contain the infestation, Kliks said.

"The only thing we can try and do is keep the levels of infestation in our managed colonies below what's called the threshold level ... so that we can still produce honey. But keeping it at that level will certainly require quite regular, heavy application of permitted pesticides," he said.

That may mean the end of certified organic honey production on the island.

The appearance of the mites could also hurt island crops that depend on wild bees for pollination, such as coffee, macadamia nuts and pumpkins, Kliks said.

Originally from Asia, varroa mites were first discovered in Wisconsin and Florida in 1987. By the next year, the mites were found in 12 states and have since spread throughout the continental U.S.

The pinhead-sized insects, which are spread through contact between bees, feed off the blood of honeybee adults, larvae and pupae.

Bees cannot legally be imported into Hawaii, and officials do not know how the mites made it to the state.

Beekeepers are being asked not to move their bees between islands or even within the same island.

Once authorities have confirmed where the mites have spread, they can then work on a possible quarantine for bees throughout the state, said Janelle Saneishi, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.

"But you know a bee flies. So that's the wild card," she said.