The Story of Hawaii’s Kiawe Honey

Travel agents, if you have customers traveling to Hawaii, you might want to tell them about bringing home some of this hard-to-find premium brand of Hawaiian honey, called kiawe honey. Some consider this type of Hawaiian honey as some of the finest honey in the world. The National Geographic Magazine is reported to say that one particular brand of Hawaiian honey is among of the best honey in the world. Why is this type of Hawaiian honey so exquisitely good? Many say it’s because the bees in Hawaii get their nectar from the blossoms of a particular tree, the prosopis padilla, better known in Hawaii as the kiawe.

Many who live and who have grown up in Hawaii are unaware that the kiawe, which thrives in drier parts of the Hawaiian Islands, is more than just a thorny tree that makes good charcoal. The kiawe is related to the mesquite tree which can be found in abundance throughout the US southwest. The kiawe tree is a legume, meaning it produces beans, and these beans played an important role in the story of Hawaiian kiawe honey. But we’ll provide more on that later on.

Many in Hawaii may also not be aware that the now somewhat ubiquitous kiawe tree is not native to Hawaii. The prosopis padilla actually is native to the South American counties of Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. There, the tree and its bean pods are known as the huarango or the algorroba and is extensively used by natives for a wide range of purposes, including, fuel wood, flour, livestock fodder and even beer and wine. But interestingly enough, Hawaii’s first kiawe tree might have actually come, not from South America, but from Paris, France, at least according to local newspaper reports, which said it came from a seed of a prosopis padilla tree which was somehow growing there.

It is said that Hawaii’s first Catholic Priest, Father Alex Bachelot, who brought the seed from France, was also the father of Hawaii’s kiawe trees. He was the one that planted the first kiawe tree seed on the grounds of his church on Fort Street in downtown Honolulu in the late 1820s. Interestingly, after leaving France, Father Bachelot spent 6 weeks in Peru before arriving in Honolulu in 1927. So did Father Bachelot get his kiawe seed in Paris, as newspaper reports have claimed, or did he get the seed from Peru where such trees are native to? Perhaps we’ll never know.

In any event, the seeds of this one kiawe tree became spread over town and eventually, the kiawe tree became the primary shade tree in all of Honolulu. But how did its seeds get spread all over the islands? You may remember that the kiawe trees’ bean pods were widely used to feed livestock throughout South America. The same thing happened in Honolulu and throughout Hawaii; so livestock as well as other foraging animals must have spread the seeds of Hawaii’s first kiawe tree all over the islands. However, kiawe trees are not suited to grow in higher elevation or in wetter areas; so this is why kiawe trees are primarily found in the drier, leeward areas of all the Hawaiian Islands.

Hawaii established its first thriving colony of honeybees in 1857. After that, the honey industry began to grow on all of the Hawaiian Islands. But on the Big Island of Hawaii, beekeepers were brought in to specifically increase the production of kiawe trees, and in particular kiawe beans, during the 1890s. Once again, kiawe beans provided an excellent source of livestock feed, but this time, for the Big Island’s fast growing cattle industry. And as the cattle industry grew and expanded, so did the distribution of more kiawe tree seeds, which in turn, created more kiawe trees. As the honeybees gathered the sweet nectar of the light yellow blossoms of the kiawe tree, a unique tasting honey became a welcomed byproduct for beekeepers on the Big Island.

Today on the Big Island as well as on other islands, there is a small, but active, number of beekeepers that specialize in premium honey sourced exclusively from kiawe trees. According to one leading company, kiawe honey must be hand-harvested at the right time of year. If it is harvested too soon, it could ferment. On the other hand, if it is too late, it could harden; and if it hardens, it would need to be heated to extract the honey from the hive which would alter its taste. Some of the companies that specialize in kiawe honey include: Rare Hawaiian Honey Company in Kamuela on the Big Island, Manoa Honey Company in Honolulu on the island of Oahu, Maui’s Best Honey in Kihei on the island of Maui and Molokai Meli in Kaunakakai on the island of Molokai.

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