Can you imagine producing more than 10,000 mated queen bees a week, or 365,000 total across a season? That huge work load was the reality for Gus Rouse and his Kona Queen Hawaii business by the end of his 40 years at the company, most as the owner. The now-retired American beekeeper recently holidayed in the South Island, but the visit wasn’t completely without beekeeping as he visited a Nelson queen breeding business and then reflected on his journey from the wonder at first seeing inside a beehive, to owning and managing not only America’s, but one of the world’s, largest queen bee businesses.
The numbers are staggering – each year Kona Queen alone produces enough mated queens to requeen over 60 percent of New Zealand’s just under 600,000 registered colonies.
Kona Queen is located on Big Island of the American state of Hawaii and has what Rouse calls “perfect conditions for raising queens”.
“The island is kind of shaped like a boomerang or a heart and we are tucked in that protected area on the leeward side of some huge volcanic mountains, protecting us from the Trade Winds. It’s warm temperatures, no wind and 360 days of sunshine,” Rouse says, speaking from Nelson airport shortly before hitting the skies on the way home to Hawaii, following a mountain bike tour of the South Island with his wife Sandy Pelzel.
While Rouse, points out that not all of the 365,000 queens produced were sold, with four percent extra queens included in any order shipped to account for any losses in transit, as well as many used for requeening their own hives. Regardless, the output is exceptional.
Big Island, also known as Hawai’i, is the largest of Hawaii’s eight main, or 137 total, islands. Volcanic mountains provide the wind-break to the western side, two of which stretch to almost 14,000 feet or around 4,200m, both approximately 500m taller than Aoraki/Mount Cook.
While the geography and tropical climate plays a big part in being able to be home to one of the world’s largest queen bee breeding programmes, a lot of human toil is needed too. When Rouse sold up Kona Queen to US mainland beekeeper Kelly O’Day in 2017 and headed for retirement the business had 35 employees,about 28,000 nucleus hives and 5000 support hives for raising their 365,000 mated queens from. That was a far cry from the 26,000 queens produced the first season when Rouse took an ownership share in the early 1980s.
“Kona Queen Hawaii grew much bigger than I ever thought,” he says of the business which breeds both Italian and Carniolan strains of honey bee.
The story of that growth is not only one of beekeeping nouse, but lobbying government agencies for change, good mentorship, some luck, sleepless nights and a lot of hard graft, the American apiarist explains.
Coming to Hawaii
Before making Big Island his and his new brides’ home, Rouse had spent most of his 20s running a successful beekeeping business of about 800 hives on the US mainland in the 1970s, alongside his brother.
“We ran the hives for pollination and honey, in almonds and prunes in California and then alfalfa (lucerne) seed production in Nevada. Later in the season we would move them up into southern Oregon, then back to California. We had a small circuit compared to most American beekeepers. They were going Montana, down to California, back up to Washington. You come to a point where you can’t tell if you are a beekeeper or a truck driver. You have to keep bees during the day and drive a truck at night.”
His honeymoon to Hawaii in 1978 piqued his interest in beekeeping on the islands and he relocated the approximately 2000 miles, or 3200km, south west across the Pacific Ocean to begin work at Kona Queen, which at that stage had been operating for just three years. It was founded by two big players in beekeeping on the US mainland, Roy Weaver and James Powers. Both those men would prove to be great contacts and mentors for Rouse in his time as first an employee, then one third owner alongside them, before taking outright ownership in 1993-94.
“One was the country’s biggest queen breeder and the other the biggest honey producer,” Rouse describes Weaver and Powers.
“They decided to start this little company in Hawaii because they thought the conditions were ideal for queen breeding. They just had it managed though and didn’t participate a lot themselves. They donated beehives or money or whatever it was to get it going.”
Rouse initially intended to work on one of the smaller islands in more general beekeeping practises, but decided to get started at Kona Queen when they had an opening, despite some scepticism.
“We had raised queens in California, and I thought that was the hardest, busiest time of year for us. So, I was not excited, but in the end it worked out great,” Rouse reflects.
Great indeed. After just a year in the manager quit and, despite being unsure at first, one of the owners convinced Rouse to step into the role.
“I told him that’s what I came for, but didn’t know if I was qualified. He said he could help, ‘call us when you need’. He gave great advice. It wasn’t making any money, but they then gave me a pathway to one third ownership, if I could show a profit.”
A profit they showed and by 1985 Rouse had paid off his one-third share.
Early on his mentors encouraged him to serve on one of America’s two main industry bodies, the American Beekeeping Federation. He would spend 12 years on the board and six on the executive committee.
“You meet a lot of people and sooner or later they are going to want to buy some queens and they will think of you. That all worked out and I learned a lot about government and international trade. I enjoyed my time on the board, but it was all voluntary. No one offered to pay your air fare or hotel room or anything. It was ‘congratulations you’re on the committee, here’s when the next meeting is’.”
Serving the industry in that manner was very much a worthwhile investment of his time and resource though, as it would lead to change in international bee trade that would launch his business into a new stratosphere.
When Rouse bought out his partners in 1993 and 1994 to take full ownership, his timing was good.
“In 1993, after five years of working on it, I was able to get the Canadian border open and access to that market. In ’87 they had closed to all US queens and bees. There were huge companies put out of business overnight on both sides of the border. It was really a rough go. It took me until 1993 to convince authorities that we weren’t going to be shipping bees from our partners in Texas to circumvent their rules, that they would come from Hawaii. From then we didn’t really produce honey, we just focused on queens and it extended our markets.
“We starting having queens ready and sending them out from early February, building up to our biggest shipping week of March 25. Then when the Canadian market opened, our next biggest week was May 5. So, it doubled our production and meant we could go through and harvest five more rounds in all our nucleus hives. It provided a much more viable business.”
In New Zealand a “round” in a queen mating unit between each potential successful mating is usually 25-30 days. However, in Hawaii the more conducive weather for bee flight makes in 16 days. There are also enough drone bees in the colonies to make for adequate mating partners for the queens almost all year round. The combination of ideal conditions and market forces saw Kona Queen boom in the 1990s and into the new millennium.
“We went from having three months in the black and then hanging on for the rest of the year, to by the time we left we actually had 10 months of positive cash flow. For only two months around Christmas, where we were getting set up for the coming season, did sales slow down.”
As well as the Canada market opening up, Rouse says US beekeepers began to extend their queen demands more into autumn once varroa began to bite and they realised autumn splits gave them the required amount of time to get hives up to strength before being used for pollination services or honey gathering. The growing almond industry and the requirement for honey bee hives for pollination has helped beekeeping prosper on the US mainland too, and with it the demand for queens increased.
“We ended up raising more queens than anyone I’ve ever heard of. We weren’t doing it for glory, we were doing it because the demand was there,” Rouse says.
In the hives
With 28,000 nucs running during peak production, requiring 12,000-15,000 cells to be produced a week, from January all the way to November, it was, and is, a long and industrious season at Kona Queen. They always tried to carry out their first graft of queen cells on the first working day of January, “That’s probably the equivalent of June 1 for you guys”, Rouse says to explain the extreme length of their season.
Those cells would go into two-way nucs with frames 6.5 by 9inch in dimension.
“We designed a stand you could put any box in and make two nucs out of it. We had a two-way hive then. In Kona it is so rocky. You will never get stuck in the mud, but you might in the rock and grass. So, we had all our hives on stands which you could bounce around in the rocks to get level.”
While they didn’t target November or December matings, he says they got very good at supplementary feeding to ensure hive strengths year-round. Protein patties and “candy boards” of sugar cooked to a rock candy were used, as well as sugar syrup at different times of the year.
“Often times it would be really dry and hard on the bees in Kona, we would be feeding them heavily weekly with pollen pattys and sugar syrup, but then we had some areas up in the volcanoes at about 6500 feet at a totally different climate. So, we had some backup sites. If we didn’t feel some of the areas had enough drones we could bring hives down from the mountains and they would be full of drones. Huge hives.”
They also ran 5000 full-sized hives for bees and drones to support the mating units.
When he first arrived at Kona Queen they had a reputation for breeding aggressive bees due to cross-breeding with feral German black bees. It took nearly a decade to breed a gentler stock Rouse says, which included learning and implementing artificial insemination.
While Hawaii has closed borders to bee imports, they have had varroa since at least 2007 and small hive beetle since 2010, the later is not yet found in New Zealand.
“Small hive beetle is equally as bad as varroa, at least until we learnt how to contain it. You have to be a better beekeeper and have strong colonies to defend themselves. Frame spacing is important. If you have frames pushed up against the walls of the hives then beetles will jump right on. But, as long as the bees have access to everywhere in the hive, and they are strong, then the beetles never have a place to hide and lay eggs. They move fast though,” Rouse warns.
When the beetle, which feeds on pollen, honey and even bee larvae, first arrived it posed a big challenge until their management practises adapted, the veteran queen-breeder says.
“It was a tough couple of years there to maintain queen production. The beetles would be taking out hundreds of nucs a day. A couple of years without sleep and we made it through.”
Out the Other Side
All those challenges are behind Rouse now though and he hasn’t had a single hive to his name since selling up in 2017. He still lives in Kona on the Big Island only a couple of minutes drive from his former business though. Along with wife Sandy, the pair now have time to enjoy holidays at any time of the year – including mountain bike sojourns to New Zealand in January – and reflect on over 40 years of beekeeping.
His trip to New Zealand included a visit with former Ministry for Primary Industries employee Lou Gallagher in Nelson, the pair having crossed paths on a beekeeping course in Hawaii previously. While there they called in on Kiwi Queens NZ, a Nelson-based queen breeding business owned by Matt Goldsworthy and Sarah Brooks. There he got some education on New Zealand beekeeping, where mating percentages around 50-60% for a season are common. Rouse says they worked on about 80-85% mating success in Hawaii.
And, as for the manuka honey, he couldn’t bring himself to buy any.
“When I first came into New Zealand I saw 8oz (225g) for $65-70 and I thought, this is unbelievable. Now I’m leaving without any. I have produced a lot of honey and I am not going to pay that. Then I found out later on the tour that someone bought some for $15 down near Queenstown.”
He has learned of some of the pain Kiwi beekeepers are experiencing with honey prices at present, and has some advice.
“I was told long ago, don’t leverage yourself too much. Don’t overspend. Because the market is going to go up and down, especially if you’re in the honey market. If, and when, it does go down, and you are not indebted to the bank, you can buy a lot of hives for cheap. Then, when the market goes up again, you will have a lot of hives to produce honey with.”
That’s all behind him though and while he remained active in the hives until he was 66, he was glad when a willing buyer came along. Getting to that point was the result of many years dedication to the craft of beekeeping, sound business management and industry involvement, which any beekeeper can learn from.
“From ’81 to ’95. Those were the grind years. After that I thought we could actually support the family and send the kids to college, and all that,” Rouse surmises.
“I had a great foreman for years and years and great people in the office. We had good people around us and it was a team effort for sure,” he says, adding “my last 15 years were the best, the first 30 were a lot of hard work and I am just thankful I enjoyed it”.