I’m very passionate about bees,” says Manda McPhee—the Manda McPhee of McPhee’s Bees—as she sits across from me at Small Town Coffee in Kauaʻi’s Kapaʻa town. And somehow, “passionate” is almost an understatement. She’s wearing a shirt with a bee on it—the barista makes a comment about it—and I will later go to Happy Hour at a local joint, Fish Bar Deli, where there is a cocktail named “McPhee’s Bees.” Yep, her honey is in there. As it’s also in dishes at a handful of other nearby restaurants and used in various local, organic cosmetics
The special ingredients of Hawaii-made Honey
“There are such diverse plants here for bees and four flowering seasons. There’s always something for them,” she says. “And the honey tastes different in different seasons.” As Manda lists off a sundry of flowering plants, “Albizia, Christmas Berry…” it’s as if she can taste the distinct nuances of the honey. There is no dearth in Hawaiʻi, or season with a shortage of nectar-producing flowers. Bees here can make honey all year round.
Manda places two jars of her honey in front of me. One is from Moloaʻa, the other from Anahola, less than five miles away. The color of the honey is different, the viscosity, the flavor. It is a striking illustration that honey does not always (and perhaps should not ever) come in a sea of identical bear-shaped, plastic squeeze bottles. The nature of honey is variety, as is the nature of, well, nature.
Manda is musing: “When flowers bloom, they emit an electrical charge which is like an invitation for the bee. It’s one of the oldest love stories of nature.”
During COVID, Manda went through a Master Beekeeping program with the University of Montana. While she says that her original approach to beekeeping had been mainly intuitive, the curriculum was more scientific; studying bees under a microscope, doing field research. I tell Manda that she sounds like a Bee Geek, but apparently, there’s already a word for that.
“‘Beek.’ I’m definitely a Beek,” she says.
Manda’s background is in food management, which is how she came to understand local food systems on Kauaʻi. She now hopes that she can work with bees for the rest of her life.
Manda is interested in apitherapy, an alternative therapy that uses bee products (including honey, pollen, propolis, and bee venom) for disease prevention and to treat illness and pain. There are still worlds to discover about the benefits of bee products in maintaining and regaining health.
“There’s always more to learn about bees. They’re so incredible. I hope my relationship with bees will just continue to grow stronger.” Manda hopes to see more bee medicine in the next decade, knowing that bee products are ancient medicinals that humans have largely lost touch with.
“Honey is just the icing on the cake,” says Manda.
But the icing, it is sweet.
Manda explains that Hawaiʻi-made honey is beneficial for locals and visitors alike. For residents of Hawaiʻi, consuming honey from your direct area can help with environmental allergies—the idea being that trace exposure to allergens can help desensitize. Local honey is also raw, unprocessed, compared to large-scale production honey which gets filtered. In its raw state, honey contains high antioxidants, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and wound-healing capability. The purer the honey, the stronger the medicinal benefits.
For visitors of the islands, or consumers from around the world looking to channel the essence of Hawaiʻi through its local food, Manda explains that Hawaiʻi-made honey is one way to experience the nature of this place. Taking home Hawaiʻi-made honey is like taking home the spirit of a little corner of the island—the map of flora, the patterns of rain, the variations of soil.
Visitors and Hawaiʻi residents alike are also playing a role in stimulating the small business economy by buying local Hawaiʻi-made honey. Everyone in the chain benefits, from consumers to beekeepers to the magical bees themselves.
Manda keeps positive relationships with other beekeepers on Kauaʻi also. Fellow island beekeepers have been known to share apiary spaces and processing facilities. They know they have to work together. She also expresses how grateful she is for the many small, organic farms in Hawaiʻi and the fact that her bees have such a plethora of pesticide-free sources to forage. As a collective, bees that call Hawaiʻi home are super strong and healthy.
Hawaiʻi has not yet, and hopefully never will be, exposed to the Varroa mite, also known as the Varroa destructor. As the world’s most devastating pest for honeybees, in places other than Hawaiʻi, bees must be treated against the mite. Traditionally, Varroa mites are treated chemically. The treatment affects the bee colony itself and the honey product. The quality of the air here, the predominance of organic farming, the lack of Varroa mite, and Hawaiʻi’s beekeepers’ pono, or righteous, stewardship of their bees all translate to exceptional Hawaiʻi-made honey.