University of Hawaii Innovation Initiative

Biofuels & Bees

Research addresses the critical problems of food and fuel

By Jolyn Okimoto Rosa
GROWING GRASS: Andrew Hashimoto directs biofuels research in Waiman. Photo By Anthony Consillio

GROWING GRASS: Andrew Hashimoto directs biofuels research in Waiman. Photo By Anthony Consillio

About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Moreover, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion nationally in increased crop value each year.

Hawai‘i depends on honeybees to pollinate many of its tropical crops, and they are an integral component in the food production web in these Islands. That’s why research of the Varroa mite, a vector for viral diseases that is decimating honeybee populations, is so critical. Our food supply may depend on what researchers at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) and their partners are able to find.

The UH Honeybee Project, in cooperation with researchers from Sheffield University, observed that the spread of the Varroa mite has led to an increase in prevalence and virulence of the Deformed Wing Virus among colonies. The spread of the Varroa mite has caused this virus, which is of low prevalence and minimal impact in Varroa-free areas, to emerge as a lethal pathogen. These findings were published in the journal Science in 2012.

The researchers hypothesize that the same interactions between the mite and virus may be a contributing factor in the deaths of millions of bee colonies worldwide. As such, the ongoing work is not only important for honeybee conservation and food production locally, but potentially around the globe.

INFECTED BEE: The worker bee on top displays deformed wings due to a viral infection, and will not be able to forage or raise more bees for the colony. Courtesy: Ethel Villalobos, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources

INFECTED BEE: The worker bee on top displays deformed wings due to a viral infection, and will not be able to forage or raise more bees for the colony. Courtesy: Ethel Villalobos, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources

FUEL

More than 90 percent of Hawai‘i’s energy needs are met through imported fossil fuels. Yet researchers are looking at ways such crops as fast-growing grasses – such as those in Waimanalo and on Maui – may help the state grow its way to fuel self-sufficiency. CTAHR and its research partners have been awarded a four-year, $6 million federal grant for biofuels research, raising the project’ s federal funding total in recent years to $15 million.

“When people ask me, ‘Is it economically viable at this point?’ I say we don’t have the answers yet,” says Professor Andrew Hashimoto of CTAHR. “That’s why we do the research.”

UH Manoa’s Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) has been exploring alternative energy since 1974, and extra-mural funding has exploded from $2 million in 2001 to $31 million in 2011. Among HNEI’s diverse projects is the development of hydrogen production infrastructure at the Puna Geothermal Venture’s plant on the island of Hawai‘i.

Varroa Mite. Courtesy: Ethel Villalobos, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Varroa Mite. Courtesy: Ethel Villalobos, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Then there’s the Maui Smart Grid Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a nationwide set of demonstration projects. Students from the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui at UH Maui College completed energy audits for the project. HNEI Director Rick Rochelau says the goal is to reduce peak demand and facilitate the integration of renewable technologies such as wind and solar.

“With a total expenditure around $13 million, with about half coming from our industry partners, this project should end up helping in other regions of the country,” says Rochelau.

UH Honeybee Project | www.uhbeeproject.com
Maui Smart Grid | www.hnei.hawaii.edu/projects/maui-smart-grid
Western Insular Pacific Sun Grant Subcenter | www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/bioenergy/Reports.aspx

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