Volcanic Impacts on Honey Bees and Guidelines for Beekeepers: Plan "Bee"

The lower Puna eruption on the Big Island began on May 3, 2018, in Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone. To date, over 20 fissures have erupted lava fountains into the Leilani estates subdivision with lava flows affecting many others, destroying hundreds of homes and displacing thousands of residents. The region surrounding this most recent eruption also has high value for agriculture: in addition to producing approximately 90% of the state’s papayas, it is critical for beekeepers and honey production. Apiaries in the eastern and southern areas of the Big Island that are outside of the immediate eruption zone are still experiencing poor air quality from vog, and may be impacted as well.

Soils of volcanic origin have high potential for agricultural production, and for successful production these areas have need of pollination services. Despite this, very little research has been conducted investigating the indirect effects of volcanic eruptions on honey bees; instead, nearly all is focused on the direct effects of ash. In laboratory studies, volcanic ash interferes with the waxy components of the honey bees’ exoskeleton, leading to dehydration.1 If you think about the exoskeleton like a suit of plate armor, the plates can get ash particles caught between them, which lacerates their sensitive membranes and impedes the workers’ ability to fly.1,2 Honey bees do not appear to avoid ash-contaminated food resources,3 and ingestion of ash particles is hypothesized to damage their digestive systems and ultimately reduce survival.4 To date, no research has been published evaluating the effects of volcanic gases on honey bees directly, or the effects on honey bee products such as honey, wax, or pollen in terms of human consumption.

Based on the limited information available, recommendations to Big Island beekeepers are focused on mitigating risks associated with ash and potentially hazardous gas exposure. If possible, transporting colonies to more favorable areas is strongly recommended. If this is not possible, you can discourage foraging on contaminated flowers by reducing or sealing hive entrances and providing supplemental nutrition in the form of sugar water and protein supplements. Offering previously collected local pollen as a patty may also be beneficial. These should not be considered long-term solutions, though, and moving colonies to less impacted areas should be prioritized. Trade winds have mostly kept the vog plume out at sea, but should this change, neighboring islands (Maui and Lana‘i) may experience unsafe vog conditions. These will likely be short term, and beekeepers on these islands should not need to take further safety precautions.

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  1. Klostermeyer, E.C., L.D. Corpus, C.L. Campbell (1981). Population changes in arthropods in wheat following volcanic ash fall-out. Melanderia 37: 45–49.
  2. Woyke, J., and J. Gabka (2011). Effect of volcanic ash cloud over Poland on flight activity of honey bees. Journal of Apicultural Science 55: 5–17.
  3. Martínez, A.S., M. Masciocchi, J.M. Villacide, G. Huerta, L. Daneri, A. Bruchhausen, G. Rozas, J.C. Corley (2013). Ashes in the air: the effects of volcanic ash emissions on plant-pollinator relationships and possible consequences for apiculture. Apidologie 44: 268–277.
  4. Edwards. J., and L. Schwartz (1981). Mount St. Helens ash: a natural insecticide. Canadian Journal of Zoology 59: 714–715.

BI apiary ash

A Big Island apiary experiencing vog and ash fallout from the lower Puna eruption. Photo by Eli Isele.

Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation" interviewed faculty from UH Mānoa to foster a better understanding of the impacts of the volcanic eruption on the Big Island's farmers and growers on June 6, 2018. The program may be found here


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