Rare Hawaiian Organic White Honey, produced by Volcano Island Honey Co., is the most expensive honey in America. Pearly white, with a delicate flavor that raises eyebrows and shuts eyes, it sells like hotcakes. The catch, explains founder Richard Spiegel, is that much of the honey sold goes off-island. And while customers willingly pay the cost of shipping, more carbon dioxide gets into the atmosphere that way, contributing to global warming.
Balancing finances with high ideals has become the central focus of Spiegel’s experiment at managing a small business that values sustainability and justice over profit. And the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“I’ve been trying to change the world since forever. I started as a lawyer, but that wasn’t doing it,” he said. “We have to think about what we’re doing on this planet and try to raise consciousness to a higher level.”
Spiegel and Andrea Dean, his business manager, recently spoke to a group of visiting students from an East Coast college. It was a business course. He encouraged them to look inside their hearts and live by the values they find inside. “I can tell you what works for me, what I believe,” he told them, “but ultimately you need to figure out what works for you.”
Volcano Island can’t keep up with demand for its organic white honey because the supply is limited to a grove of kiawe trees clinging to a lava flow on Hawaii’s west coast. Called mesquite elsewhere, kiawe have the ability to grow on bare lava, where nothing else grows, creating a canopy—single-handedly establishing a humid, buzzing, chirping forest.
“It’s a classic oasis,” says Spiegel, describing the grove of trees that produces his honey.
Like much of Hawaii, kiawe is beautiful, tough, and sharp. A legume, kiawe adds nitrogen to Hawaii’s soils. It produces pods edible to cattle and humans. Its hard wood makes it useful. And the young shoots produce thorns long enough to pierce a flip-flop. While kiawe has spread to many places in Hawaii, in order to produce pure kiawe honey a grove needs to be large enough and far enough from other flowering plants that the honey stays pure. It turns out there is only one stand of kiawe on the island that satisfies these criteria. And last year, nearly half of it—400 acres—burned down.
Thus, the small business had to downsize to a tiny business, shedding eight of 12 employees. Though saddened by the fire, Spiegel shows more concern for a developer’s plans to build a golf course and housing development on the land. Conservation groups, like the Nature Conservancy, would normally jump at the chance to preserve such a unique forest—except in this case the trees are an exotic species, introduced to Hawaii by a French priest.
So, barring the miraculous appearance of $14 million in Spiegel’s bank account, this amazing white honey has a tenuous future.
And if that’s not enough excitement for the lawyer-turned-hippie-turned-beekeeper, another shadow has been cast—this time from the nearby island of Oahu, where varroa mites were discovered last year. This pest, which can destroy entire bee colonies in gruesome fashion, has been impossible to eradicate, and is now an easy boat or plane ride away from the other Hawaiian islands, including the big one, where the kiawe grove grows.
Hawaii’s honey production, though considerable, shrinks compared to another related industry that’s just as vulnerable to varroa mites. Hawaii is a world leader in producing queen bees, due in part to the islands’ isolated and varroa-free location.
The mite’s new presence in Hawaii hardly helps the worldwide bee crisis. In addition to varroa, there is a newer challenge called colony collapse disorder, which has devastated honey production elsewhere. Beekeepers are scrambling to rebuild their colonies, creating a worldwide deficit of about half a million queens. The Hawaiian Queen Company Inc., one of three queen bee companies on the big island, currently ships between 6,000 to 8,000 queens a month during peak season, with a two-year waiting list.
Despite such bleak news, Spiegel is undaunted. After all, it’s the whole world he’s worried about, not just his honey, and this concern isn’t new. With his small, values-based business, Spiegel continues to work for change in small, arguably homeopathic doses.
A values-based business means working slowly enough that no bee ever gets crushed. It means paying your staff to swim in the ocean after a sweaty afternoon. It means giving preference to local markets, even at a dramatically reduced price, because selling locally is better.
In an attempt to tell the visiting students about Volcano Island’s attempts to calculate its carbon footprint, Andrea Dean, the business manager, asked the group,“Who’s heard of the greenhouse effect?”
One student ventured a reply. “It’s like, the plants, they release water, which becomes clouds.”
This is why Spiegel, Dean, and their busy bees, keep on buzzing. Between educating the youth, tending to the experimental business, saving the world, making honey, and once in a while swimming in the ocean, there is so much work to do.
Ask Ari: Get over it: Food can be nasty business
Q: Dear Flash,
Your article on eating chicken embryos was disgusting and unnecessary. We have enough shock value in the media today, and much of what you write is about wholesome, important topics. Why stoop to this?
A: Dear Egg Lover,
It sounds like you would be okay with eating the contents of that same egg two weeks earlier, when it was still mostly just an egg, and you would be okay if I wrote about eating the contents of that egg a few weeks later, when it was a chicken.
But that brief window when the contents of that egg are neither egg nor chicken is somehow off limits.
This isn’t about coming to terms with the fact that eggs are baby chickens. In fact, most eggs are not even baby chickens, since they are unfertilized. More accurately eggs could be called “chicken menstruations.” Only when fertilized do they become little baby chickens, like the one I ate.
It reminds me of how certain parts of the human body, or certain things we do with our bodies at certain times, are off limits. Why? Because they are troubling reminders that we are animals, with animal parts and animal urges. These dark places, where the sun doesn’t shine, are off limits because they contain certain truths that we’d prefer to avoid.
Another example: Cows in the field are okay. Beef shrink-wrapped in plastic is okay. A messy slaughterhouse, full of the stench of dying and death…that’s not okay. But by ignoring the ugliness, you can’t change the fact that by eating meat, you are party to a kill.
The bottom line, Egg Lover, is that what I write doesn’t change the fact that you’ve probably consumed both the menstrual discharge and the fetal tissue of chickens. So why blame the messenger?
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