Is the manuka honey phenomenon a fad, folly or a permanent part of Wairarapa’s future prosperity?

With nearly a dozen registered manuka honey producers – ranging from small boutique brands such as Greytown Honey and Martinborough’s Avatar Manuka Honey, to large commercial enterprises like Watson & Son – Wairarapa is fast becoming one of New Zealand’s hot spot honey producing regions.

Adjunct businesses are also springing up – companies like rural South Wairarapa’s The Hive Doctor, which has created a hive management product to help protect hives from the Varroa mite and the small hive beetle.

Other enterprises are also seizing on honey-coated opportunities. Local fudge maker Laughing Owl Fudge has teamed up with Avatar Manuka Honey to launch a new manuka flavoured treat. Meanwhile, Masterton’s Stihl Shop and Greytown’s Hire Shop have opened a new sales division – The Hive Shop. These businesses spotted a gap in the market for quality, value-for-money beekeeping and honey processing supplies, including specialist machinery, protective wear, extractors, tanks and Queen excluders.

And the result of the burgeoning manuka market means Wairarapa is adding extra diversity for its tourists, the local economy is experiencing a boost and, importantly, more jobs are being created. Watson & Son, for example, currently employs over 160 people – not counting its annual influx of seasonal workers.

According to Kieran McAnulty, Masterton District Council’s economic development manager, beekeeping positions now feature prominently amongst job listings.

But it wasn’t that long ago we were stripping out manuka trees in favour of reclaiming grazing land. Mr McAnulty recalls his summer job as a university student of burning off the manuka bush in northern Wairarapa.

“It was a simple job – cut it down so low that it didn’t grow back. It seems crazy now, but back then there was no use for manuka whatsoever. It was considered a pest plant that took up good pasture, and had to be removed.”

It was a similar story for Karly Polaschek of Greytown Honey. Karly used to work with her father, John Simmonds of Simmonds Honey, and remembers there weren’t any markets for manuka. “So, we used to feed it back to the bees,” she says.

Greytown Honey's Karly and Alex Polaschek. Photo by Rebecca Kempton.

Greytown Honey’s Karly and Alex Polaschek. Photo by Rebecca Kempton.

And there are tales from around the same time of other beekeepers in the area not wanting New Zealand’s ‘tea tree’ growing in their yards. The honey it produced was so thick it was deemed too tricky to take off the comb and harvest.

And without demand for manuka honey, why would you go to the trouble?

Even 10 years ago, the value of manuka was still barely known across the agricultural and apicultural industries. But go back five or so years, and the honey landscape started to look quite different.

By then, the word about manuka was well and truly out. The research conducted by world leading honey scientist, the late Dr Peter Molan MBE – the man who discovered the special antibacterial properties of manuka honey – had been understood, and the market was responding in a healthy way.

Triggered by Dr Molan’s findings, New Zealand was now adding value to its honey production – and the world was beginning to take notice and buy up our supplies. And this is still very much the case today, with no signs of a market slow down. In fact, quite the reverse. There’s continuing investment in manuka honey and a flood of new products being developed for the food and beverage markets – as well as the medical industry. Locally, ‘honey diggers’ are buying up prime farmland to plant out manuka.

Nationally, we’re now adopting manuka honey as part of our antipodean identity.

Karly Polaschek confirms the market is on a high. She and husband Alex’s company, which runs 600 hives, is thriving. “There’s a buoyant boutique product market which serves locals and visitors to the region,” she says.

“We are regularly approached by various big international companies to sell our bulk sale honey to them for good money. It seems there is no shortage of global demand.”

But Karly is cautious about the future and doesn’t envy those who have only recently jumped on the manuka honey bandwagon – those who have invested heavily in the hope they will sample sweet success.

“I think there will always be demand for manuka honey and there will continue to be room for lots of players. But we must remember that honey is a seasonal business. While we haven’t had a bad season for the past five years, it will come.

“I doubt [a bad season] will damage the overall manuka honey industry too drastically, but it could have the potential to wipe out any company that is heavily in debt and is relying on the production of manuka honey as its sole source of income.”

Add to this the fact that manuka bush requires five years to mature before any honey can be produced. So, the newcomers to the market may be wise not to give up their day jobs just yet.

Mr McAnulty agrees that while the climate in Wairarapa is conducive to the production of manuka honey, there are no guarantees.

However, he does believe the future prospects for manuka honey in the region will remain favourable, particularly if product diversification continues.

He says that manuka honey is currently demanding a good price and it’s the industry’s focus on evolving the product and exploring development opportunities that suggest the whole industry will sustain the promising position it’s in.

“Take Watson & Son’s commitment to research and its investment in the medical side of manuka. This demonstrates there are still so many untapped opportunities for manuka honey. In many respects, the honey industry here is a great example to other industries of the benefits of adding value to a product.

“As for Wairarapa, I think we have already firmly secured our place in this market. Our weather and our location make us highly attractive to apiculture and I foresee that beekeeping will increasingly become an integral part of our local economy, providing even more jobs, and bringing further variety and innovation to our region.”

Photo by Rebecca Kempton.

Photo by Rebecca Kempton.

Bee Inspired ~ Gleniti Honey

Jamie Fitzgerald is well known for his modern-day TV adventure series, First Crossings. Plus he’s one of the country’s top motivational speakers. But you’ll also find him out on his farm nestled amongst the hills of the Gladstone valley of Longbush, arm deep in bees and honey production, with his young family by his side.

“We all know bees are fascinating, but the bit I find the most interesting is their innate sense of preserving their species,” Jamie explains. “Everything they do is for the good of the hive. It’s all about teamwork and working towards one common goal”.

Jamie says it takes 12 bees to make one teaspoon of honey, and a hive of bees can fly the equivalent of three orbits around the earth to collect 1kg. There are over 50,000 bees in one hive and every bee has a very special job, including the undertaker bees who remove the dead. The female bees are the ones we see in our gardens collecting pollen, while the males’ only job is to mate with the Queen.

“The process of hive maintenance, checking the bees and producing the honey takes a fair bit of time. But this, together with understanding bee behaviour, gives my two girls an appreciation of looking after each other; doing things together; setting goals and reaping the sweet rewards.”

 

Beauty and the Bee ~ Watson & Son

Self-confessed manuka-mad scientist and man of the land, Denis Watson, runs Watson & Son in Masterton – with his bee-whispering son, Daniel.

Denis recognised the potential of manuka early on, and the company now specialises in producing premium manuka honey for consumers and medical industries around the world. Denis also established ManukaMed, a company dedicated to researching and developing products that use the unique properties of manuka for wound care and burns at amputation wards and trauma centres.

Cosmetic companies have also shown strong interest. Just recently New York skincare brand Kiehl’s (part of the L’Oreal group) has used Watson & Son’s manuka honey as a key ingredient in its new Pure Vitality Skin Renewing Cream – retailing at $98.

Kiehl’s was clear it wanted an all-natural manuka product from New Zealand. It chose Watson & Son as its supplier and used its premium manuka with Korean red ginseng root as the key ingredient for its new skin product.

Beehives in Wairarapa. Photo by Rebecca Kempton.

Beehives in Wairarapa. Photo by Rebecca Kempton.

Keeping it local ~ Helen’s Honey

Town living was no barrier to beekeeping for insect and nature lover Helen Robertson. Together with husband Glen, she bought two beehives while they were flatting in Palmerston North. Fast forward 24 years to rural Mauriceville, 20 minutes north of Masterton, and the couple now keep around 150 hives with the help of their three children.

“Technically, we are semi-commercial, but I like to keep things as local and as community-orientated as possible,” says Helen.

“Our range of honeys is available in several shops across the region and I post off a fair amount too but, for me, the Wairarapa markets and fairs are really important. Selling face to face gives me the opportunity to interact with my customers, gather their feedback and hear their own honey-related stories.”

But Helen does more than just talk to her customers – she takes her bees along too.

“Everyone loves bees and having the bees there beside me is a great educational tool for adults and children alike. I enjoy explaining how the bees work and how our honey is made.

“We are often complimented on the taste and texture of our honey, so I like telling people about the creaming process; the types of nectar the bees harvest and how – just like with wine – we take care to keep our Manuka Bush, Clover and Meadow flavours distinct.”

Helen also works part-time as a teacher, and often takes her bees into schools.

Story by Lisa Carruthers