The varroa mite parasite that's been killing bees across the country is spreading on the Big Island, threatening local fruit and macadamia nut industries. The tiny bug has escaped a quarantine area around Hilo and spread to Hamakua and Puna.

The varroa mite became established on the mainland in the 1980s. Since then, it's destroyed more than half of some beekeepers' hives and devastated most wild honeybee populations. Mainland bees have also been hit by another illness called colony collapse disorder, which causes adult bees to abandon their hives.

Hawaii's first varroa mite was found in 2007 on Oahu, where it is now widely established.

The mites breed in the bees' hives, living off their blood. The mites weaken the bees, allowing other viruses and diseases to kill them. The parasites hurt agriculture because honeybees help pollinate many fruits and vegetables.

Garnett Pruett, the owner of Captain Cook Honey, one of the largest honey producers on the Big Island, said he expects the bug to spread all over the island.

"It's just a matter of time. It could be six months, a year, a year and a half" before the mites spread islandwide, Pruett said. "We're going to have to start dealing with it."

"It's a disaster," he added. "But the only way to deal with it is to deal with it as if it's happened already."

The state tried to contain the bug to Hilo, where the first Big Island specimen was found.

The state set 200 baiting stations containing low concentrations of insecticide within a five-mile radius of Hilo harbor. It claimed a crisis exemption to federal law regulating insecticide use for the move. The treatments worked well, and the state removed hundreds of hives and colonies, said Neil Reimer, head of the Plant Quarantine Branch within the state Department of Agriculture.

But by the time the treatments were developed and deployed, the macadamia nut trees were flowering and bees flocked to the trees instead of the bait traps. Making matters worse, Reimer said, an unidentified beekeeper moved his contaminated hives north toward Amauulu and south into Puna, possibly to keep them from being destroyed.

"There may be others (who moved their hives out of the quarantine area), but he was the one who told us that he did it," Reimer said.

The state is now working with beekeepers to develop a strategy to slow the spread of the mites to Kona, Reimer said.

Today, bees and bee-keeping equipment are prohibited from interisland transit without inspection, although there is no regulation against moving hives around the island.

Richard Johnson, owner of Onomea Orchards and the president of the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, said his organization has formed a varroa mite steering committee and members pitched in to hire a coordinator.

"Varroa mites have been on the mainland for 20 years and they changed the whole way agriculture is done," Johnson said.

The organization represents more than 120 growers, packers and distributors of tropical fruit statewide.