Rare White Hawaiian Honey: The Volcano Island Honey Company

Richard Spiegel Bee Keeper

When Candace Choy gave me the directions to Volcano Island Honey on the Big Island, it sounded like this: “Head for Honoka’a; at Tex’s Drive-In make a left; go up the mountain for a while; when you cross the second one-lane bridge, take the next right at the big tree then keep going until you are at the end of the road.” Not a single street name. I substituted earth for road and smiled to myself.

“OK. Got it,” I said lying through my teeth, “See you soon!”

As I headed out of Hilo driving northbound on the Hawaii Belt Highway, I held my phone out at arm’s length and let go. It plunked onto the passenger’s seat with a clank as it butted up against an empty diet Pepsi can hiding under a 7-11 “Jumbo Hot Dog” wrapper. It was 10:34 A.M. By Honolulu time, I was already late. By Big Island standards, it was just the morning.

When I finally pulled into the gravel driveway of Volcano Island Honey, I was met by a smiling Richard Spiegel, owner and beekeeper-in-charge. Richard is that lovable, eccentric, uncle everyone has in his or her family. He has a Jewish surname, dresses like an Amish farmer and is a devout Buddhist. There’s more. Richard left Washington D.C. over 30 years ago, abandoning a law practice to move to the backwaters of the Big Island. He was in every sense of the word, a “hippie.” He took up bee keeping because he didn’t know a damn thing about them and was “interested in what they were doing.” Volcano Island Honey now produces some of the best honey in the world.

“I tell people,” Richard says with the cadence of a Rabbi, “that the reason our honey tastes so good is because of all the love we put into making it.” Nice sound bite but there’s a lot of work in addition to the warm and fuzzy aura. What does make it special is that Richard’s honey is creamy like butter. Unlike the clear, syrupy honey you buy at the supermarket, Volcano Island Honey is opaque. And what makes it rare is that it’s the only honey on earth that comes from the nectar of the Keawe tree’s white blossoms. The label for his honey reads appropriately enough, Rare White Hawaiian Honey.

It’s good stuff. Chef Jon Matsubara likes it because, “Richard’s honey is so creamy and delicate, I think it’s the best honey I have ever tasted – not just in Hawaii but anywhere.” He’s not alone. Chefs across the entire island chain rave about it.

Gourmet shops both here and on the mainland can’t get enough of Richard’s honey. “You know,” he says with an impish grin, “This past year I turned down about 200 orders from people on the mainland who want my honey.” We head across the yard to the production area, “There’s only so much my bees can make and when that’s gone, its gone.”

Richard is not alone in the lost art of Zen honey making. It takes all kinds. Take Jerry Shumate for instance. When I met him he wore blue jeans and a torn T-shirt. He joked easily with Richard and had a Grateful Dead kind of presence about him. He was the guy who designed and built the apparatus that separates the beeswax from the honey without using heat.

“Honey is a living entity filled with proteins and enzymes that would be destroyed by heat,” explained Richard. As a Buddhist, “destruction” is a four-letter word. That’s when Richard called Jerry for help. Jerry is overqualified or under qualified engineer depending on whether you see your beehive as half full or half empty. Jerry never worked with bees before (under qualified) but he had worked on the telescopes at the Keck Observatory (overqualified). And if he could repair a telescope that looked so far into space it could help to explain how the universe began, Jerry could figure out this little bee problem too. He did.

As we left the processing plant, we walked under a string of Tibetan prayer flags tacked to the main house. Richard wanted to show me the guest quarters he was building for visitors. One of the rooms is a meditation area with a large glass door that has a view of the ocean, a futon mattress for sitting comfortably and soulful calm.

In an adjoining building, we wound our way to Richard’s pride and joy. You see, he wants to be off the grid. He’s a greenie and he wants his bee farm to be totally, energy self-sufficient one day. To that end Richard bought a generator called a Lister, whose design was appropriated by some resourceful manufacturers in India. It’s a monster of a machine. Imagine a chunk of iron 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. Then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a generator. That’s a Lister. But when it arrived, it needed a starter so Richard called Mr. Keck Observatory. Of course.

Richard waved me over to where he was standing and pointed. I stared downward at a used flywheel from a Chevrolet, an old starter motor from a Mercedes Benz, and some scavenged metal cannibalized from other engines all welded together and attached to a car battery. This was Volcano Island Honey’s new, but slightly used, push-button starter assembly. Thank you, Jerry. The beauty of the generator for Richard is that it is virtually pollution free. It doesn’t burn petroleum as a fuel. It consumes the spent vegetable oils collected at the local restaurants. Richard beamed as if he was going to say (but didn’t); “Isn’t this just totally groovy?”

That’s not all that gets recycled here. The beeswax after the honey is extracted? Candles. The empty honeycombs? They are cleaned and reused. The honey that can’t be separated from the wax? It is collected and fed back to the bees.

“Hey!” Richard exclaimed, “Can-ya-stay for tea?” It was four in the afternoon and the daily ritual allows pretty much everyone to stop what they may be doing. It was teatime. The warehouse at Volcano Island Honey Co. becomes Harrod’s of London. By the time we sauntered in, Nicole already had the kettle on. I was overcome by the thought that I had somehow stumbled upon the last civilized place on earth. “Have some banana bread,” she offered politely, “it’s homemade.” At that very moment I considered never, ever leaving.

The group of us sat at a banquet table surrounded by cardboard boxes, used honeycombs, metal folding chairs, cut wood, and other dusty stuff. The discussion beneath the wooden rafters of this beekeeper’s warehouse touched lightly from subject to subject like they were flowers. Politics. Art. Music. Literature. For that brief while, we were our own intellectual beehive. And life, as they say in the business, is sweet.