Ark of Taste
White Kiawe Honey of Hawai'i
Kiawe honey comes exclusively from the flowers of the Kiawe tree, a type of mesquite, that grow in the arid, volcanic lava environment of the leeward side of Hawai'i. It is believed that kiawe trees, the Hawaiian word for mesquite pronounced "kee ah' vay", were first brought to Hawai'i around 1828 by Father Bachelot, the first Catholic missionary to arrive on the Big Island. From a single tree, it eventually spread to over 150,00 acres, becoming the principle shade tree of Honolulu. Its seed pods became an important source of fodder for cattle. The honeybee was introduced in 1860.
While the species Prosopis pallida is native to Central and South America and is considered a non-native naturalized plant. It is categorized as “invasive” on many pacific islands, according to information on the Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk website, it is not listed in the “risk” category for Hawai'i. Indeed, the intrinsic value of the Kiawe or mesquite tree, may soon be rediscovered, for it is saltwater tolerant and can play an important roll in controlling desertification which is a growing problem worldwide. As a prolific source of honey, mesquite flour, and fuel wood, the mesquite tree also provides value-added products for cottage industries in the semi-arid countries where it grows. The tree is particularly well suited to Hawai'i’s arid environment and rocky, volcanic soil. Although it has been termed an invasive species, Kiawe trees do not pose a major threat because their growth is limited to certain coastal climates and cannot grow above certain elevations.
Kiawe honey comes from a single stand of trees that beekeepers have been working with for over one hundred years. The grove is unique because it is an isolated oasis of trees situated on an aquifer that allows the trees to grow to an enormous size. While mesquite trees typically grow to twenty feet, the trees from which this Kiawe honey is made can reach heights of sixty feet or more.
The honey produced in this 1,000-acre kiawe forest is ninety-nine percent pure mono-flower. It must be harvested in a very specific way in order for the product to maintain its integrity. First, the combs are hand picked one at a time. This must be done at exactly the right point in the season. If the beekeeper harvests too early, before it is ripe, the honey will ferment, and if harvested too late, it will crystallize (solidify) in the wax comb, requiring heat to melt the comb to extract the honey. Applying heat would radically alter the naturally exquisite taste, texture, color and nutritional qualities of this rare and delicate honey. Perfect Kiawe honey is pearly-white with a waxy, caramel-like consistency and an unusual menthol flavor unlike any other honey.
Like any product that has only one site of production, Kiawe honey is at high risk. Richard Spiegel of Volcano Island Honey Company is currently the only beekeeper on the island who has the skills required to ensure that his bees only harvest nectar from Kiawe trees. Without his expertise, the art of Kiawe honey production would be lost. The stand of trees from which the honey is produced is also threatened. Recently, a fire burned down half of the forest, greatly reducing its productive capacity. Yet, perhaps the greatest threat to the forest is an existing golf-course permit for area that may be implemented in the near future. Richard is considering retirement and is trying to find a conservation organization or land trust to preserve this unique forest and its honey in perpetuity.
This population of Hawaiian bees may be critical in the fight against the Varroa might because the mite has not yet appeared on the Big Island of Hawai'i, although they are present on Oahu. Queen bees from the island may be needed to restock populations elsewhere that have been decimated by the mite.