From liquid gold to price crash: NZ’s honey hangover

Mānuka honey producers have been reaping the profits from selling pots of gold in recent years but now there’s a glut of non-manuka varieties as beekeepers stockpile, hoping prices will recover. New Zealand has more than 918,000 beehives, and Jane Phare looks at why the country is oozing with honey and why Kiwis looked for something less expensive to spread on their bread.

It was always a Kiwi staple, honey on toast in the morning, a spoonful to help the medicine go down. It was sweet, yummy and affordable.

Then, the so-called magical health benefits of mānuka honey became known worldwide causing export sales to take off. As the mānuka honey story reached fever pitch, so did the prices. Honey producers were earning upwards of $100 a kilo, selling little pots of dark golden nectar.

Today, monofloral mānuka honey is still a good earner at $55/kg compared to less than $20/ kg, and in some cases as low as $5/kg, for non-mānuka varieties like the staple clover honey.

And exports, mainly of mānuka honey, are still growing. In the year up to September 2020, $474 million worth of honey was exported compared to $350m the previous year.

Boosted by Covid-19 and the Western world’s preoccupation with health and wellbeing, more than 80 per cent of the exports are mānuka varieties.

Harrods in London sells 27 types of New Zealand mānuka honey across six brands in its food halls and Harrods Pharmacy. Prices range from less than $100 to more than $2600 depending on the strength. The True Honey Company 230g pot of 1700+ MGO (methylglyoxal) rare harvest sells for $2621 and a 250g pot of Koru MānukaHoney, 1500 + MGO costs $2357.

The Napier-based True Honey Company has produced 200 pots of its new Rare Harvest 1900+ honey, said to have the highest MGO rating in the world, which will sell exclusively at Harrods this year for more than $2800 each.

But at the same time mānuka honey has, indirectly, caused a slump in New Zealand’s honey industry. Driven by the lure of export prices, honey producers increased hive numbers and newbie beekeepers joined the action.

Last year New Zealand hives produced 23,000 tonnes of honey – more than double the amount produced in 2012 – and this year’s production is expected to be at least 2000 tonnes higher than that. But Kiwis consume only 5000 tonnes of honey a year, sold mostly in supermarkets.

In 2019, 9640 tonnes of that honey harvest was exported but that still left a surplus of more than 8300 tonnes, adding to stockpiles already stored in sheds throughout the North and South Islands as producers wait, and hope, for prices to recover.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) estimates the stocks of surplus honey to be between 20,000 and 25,000 tonnes – an entire year’s supply.

Third-generation honey producer Peter Bray, whose grandfather began a honey business in 1910, doubts prices will recover any time soon. Today’s prices are the new normal or, in his recollection, back where they were a decade ago before mānuka honey pushed prices beyond the average pocket.

Bray, acting manager and co-owner of Christchurch-based Airborne Honey, recalls a 500g jar of honey, which used to sell for $4 or $5 in a supermarket, rising to $14 or $15, too expensive for the average Kiwi family.

“We’ve had three, four, five years of these prices that have been demanded by producers because they could get it from people who were selling it as mānuka honey,” he says. The overcooked prices were “just a nonsense” he says.

“Any item over $10 is a big spend in the grocery basket.” Trying to get people back to spreading honey on their toast will be a tough task, he says.

“They’ve gone somewhere else, they’re eating something else.”

A decade ago Kiwis were each consuming 750g. That fell to 400g but more recently, as honey prices have dropped, it’s increased to 450g per person.

Countdown and Foodstuffs report steadily increasing sales as honey prices drop.

Although local consumption has fallen in recent years, the number of beehives has not. Twenty years ago New Zealand had about 300,000 beehives. Today there are more than 918,000 registered hives, with numbers ramping up sharply in the past few years.

In the past decade commercial honey “mega enterprises” (30,000 or more hives) have increased to nearly 50 in line with the demand for mānuka honey. Common practice was to blend non-mānuka varieties with small amounts of mānuka honey to cash in on a lucrative market.

Enter the MPI two years ago, which introduced stricter definitions for monofloral and multi-floral mānuka honey. Those included a requirement for export product to be tested by an MPI-approved laboratory.

The idea behind the move was to protect New Zealand’s trade reputation and to sting the mānuka honey cowboys where it hurt.

All of a sudden, thousands of tonnes of non-mānuka honey, previously used for blending, was useless – and surplus to requirements. Prices fell sharply, for some varieties as much as 50 per cent. At the same time New Zealand’s honey producers were also faced with increasedinternational competition and a bumper honey season.

Put simply, the country’s 9510 registered beekeepers are producing thousands of tonnes more than they can possibly use or sell.

In some cases the honey had cost more to produce than commercial beekeepers would earn back if they sold it. Struggling beekeepers have had to take up work in the construction industry and other jobs to subsidise the hives, or they’ve sold and left the industry altogether.

Others are waiting it out, living off the still-high returns for mānuka honey. Bray laughs at the prices Londoners are paying in Harrods, saying there is no published scientific evidence to support claims that eating mānuka honey boosts immunity.

“It’s been shown to be effective as a wound dressing but it has no benefit once you ingest it.”

Bray also questions if the MPI mānuka honey definitions are specific enough. Although the new standard stopped the worst of the fraud – whereby “vanishingly small” levels of mānuka were blended with other honey – he still thinks the definition has shortcomings.

Since the 1980s, Airborne has followed the Codex Alimentarius international food standards endorsed by the UN and the World Health Organisation. Codex rules that a product such as honey must be “wholly or mainly” derived from the stated plant, whether it be mānuka or clover.

Bray: “The MPI standard makes no reference about the quantity of nectar that must be derived from the plant that you are naming to go into the honey.”

Instead, the MPI’s standard is defined by a level of chemical markers within the monofloral or multi-floral mānuka honey. But, Bray says, using chemical markers alone as a definition means mānuka honey can still be blended with as much as 66 per cent clover honey and still pass the test.

He doesn’t blame one particular group for the blending and says the issue is complex.

“Do the bees blend it? Do the producers blend it? Do the packers blend it? How do you define it in the first place?”

Whoever is to blame, the outcome is more than 20,000 tonnes of surplus honey sitting in sheds around the country. Karin Kos, CEO of Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ), says the aim now is to find value in the product, including exploring beauty products.

“We have more than enough hives. Some people say we have too many hives in New Zealand. It’s actually about finding the value we can get out of honey.”

And it’s not just honey income for which bees are responsible. ApiNZ estimates the industry is worth $5 billion, taking into account the value of pollination services to the agriculture and horticulture industry, pollinating pastoral clover, seed crops, vegetables, berries and stone fruit.

Everyone can do their bit, Kos says, by planting flowering shrubs and plants in their gardens, and leaving their lawns to grow a little longer to allow flowers to pop up.

Her organisation has noticed a sharp increase in the number of hobbyist beekeepers (defined as 10 or fewer hives) registering. Another 315 beekeepers registered last year, bringing the total to more than 7100. Registrations in October and November last year jumped by 50 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.

It doesn’t take much these days to spot a beehive, particularly in Auckland’s middle-class suburbs. It’s become almost de rigueur. Beekeeping is trending on Twitter; never mind getting a cat for the flat, what about a beehive?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had two beehives installed at Premier House in Wellington’s Thorndon a couple of years ago. In urban gardens, beehives are beginning to outnumber water features, and competing for space with air conditioning units on the rooftops of inner-city buildings as the beekeeping trend continues to grow.

Bruce Clow bought East Tamaki beekeeping supplies store Ceracell six years ago. For the first three years, business was booming as beekeepers cashed in on the high mānukahoney returns. That business fell off dramatically after the new MPI regulations were introduced.

“Commercial beekeepers, if they’re not doing mānuka, are struggling,” he says.

That business has steadily been replaced by an increase in hobby beekeepers, custom that is growing every year. Business was quiet during the Covid-19 lockdown, he says.

“But then in July it just exploded again.”

Clow’s son Thomas sells boxes of bees for $450 and has been “selling plenty”, he says. All up, beekeeping protective gear, a smoker, hive tools and the bees will set newcomers back between $800 to $1000.

Kos says in response to the strong interest from Kiwis wanting to learn the art of beekeeping, technical colleges and beekeeping clubs are running courses, and ApiNZ’s apiculture apprenticeship scheme has 200 trainees signed up.

Aware that not everyone has the time or skill to look after beehives, bee entrepreneurs have set up thriving businesses renting out hives. Jessie Baker and her husband Luke Whitfield look after 60 hives spread throughout Auckland, running the business from their Bethells Beach/Te Henga home.

Four years ago the couple travelled the world studying bee keeping before returning to New Zealand to set up Bees Up Top. They rescue bee swarms, basketball-sized clusters of unwelcome bees that gather in trees or on the walls of buildings.

Baker receives calls from alarmed property owners or from exterminators, asking her to rescue the insects. Up until late last year, a heavily pregnant Baker was still squeezing into her beekeeper’s suit to haul herself up trees and ladders, knocking the bees into a box and driving them back to Bethells to be rehoused in boxes built by Whitfield.

“Once the queen bee is inside the box the rest of the bees just march in like soldiers. It’s really amazing to see,” she says.

“It’s a win-win for everyone. The bees get rescued instead of being exterminated, I get a swarm of bees and then I get to rehome them.”

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Now Bees Up Top hives are all over the city, including the roofs of restaurants in Ponsonby, back gardens and city buildings including the one occupied by Air New Zealand, where she has installed five rehoused rescue swarms. Baker has also put hives on top of the Accor group of isolation hotels.

“I get welcomed into the Covid hotels. It’s such an experience. At most of them you have to be tested afterwards too.”

Just before Christmas Baker harvests the honey into specially labelled pots to give to the clients, taking about 4 per cent of the honey to sell on the Bees Up Top website. City hives are oozing with surplus honey because of the number of flowers around, compared to New Zealand bush.

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“When you’re up on the rooftops you see the apartment balconies covered in flowers. There’s just a lot of food in the city.”

Bees Up Top will do another honey harvest in late February and still leave enough honey for the bees to feed until the next season.

Now at home with her newborn son, Baker has employed a beekeeper to fill in until baby George can walk, by which time he’ll be fitted with a tiny beekeeper’s suit. And she will be teaching her son about why bees are so important.

“They pollinate one third of the world’s food. While they’re flying around collecting nectar from flowers they are transferring pollen from flower to flower. That pollinated lemon flower turns into a lemon. Every fruit or vegetable that has a seed or a pip was pollinated by a bee.”

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