The state of the honey industry in New Zealand is extremely complex and nuanced at present. The main influences on the market include the public perception of the efficacy of manuka honey as a superfood, corruption within the industry, the oversupply of non-manuka honey, and the vulnerability of bees to environmental factors.
Manuka honey from New Zealand has known and recognised internationally for its healing properties. The SG Directory, listing the top brands of manuka honey available in Singapore, states “authentic Manuka honey has unique properties and certifications that cannot be obtained easily. If you have Manuka honey originating from other parts of the world apart from New Zealand, it’s inauthentic.” Indeed, an article in Runner’s World Online notes that significant bodies of research attest to the wound healing and antimicrobial properties of manuka honey. This had led to a vigorous export market for manuka honey and a high demand for beekeepers domestically. New Zealand commercial beekeepers have flourished because of the manuka boom, but smaller beekeepers have been adversely affected by what has been called “the manuka bubble”. At the beginning of 2019 an article in THE COUNTRY reported on the “Honey glut as warehouses fill with unwanted product” and reported Mānuka Farming’s chief executive, Stephen Lee’s observation that small honey producers began having difficulty selling their product locally in July 2018.
At the end of 2019 the Otago Daily Times reported that beekeepers producing thyme honey are unable to sell it because it does not have the reputation that manuka honey has even though thyme honey has been shown to have greater antioxidant and anti-cancer effects than manuka honey. A thyme honey producer interviewed for the article elaborated that the retailers cannot sell the honey because "Their prices are too high, and they're not selling it.” A few months after this it was reported that the president of NZ Beekeeping claimed that it is the supermarkets that are to blame for this local honey glut because they are putting “the squeeze” on honey suppliers. In effect small honey producers are having to sell their honey cheaply only to see it on sale in supermarkets for significantly higher prices. However, the head of corporate affairs of Foodstuffs, NZ says that there is an over-supply of honey which has caused prices to drop across the board. “This is great for shoppers who benefit as honey prices drop - but we do recognise this common supply and demand outcome challenges the supplier community,” she says. This disparity in prices is reflected on TradeMe where a quick search for “honey” returned over ten pages of search results. Varying grades and sources of honey are advertised with prices ranging from $159.30/kg for MGO 420+ manuka honey to $1/kg for pasture honey.
However, the situation is complicated further because of the fraud that has been discovered within the industry. This dishonesty has come in various guises. Effusive claims regarding the healing benefits of manuka honey for ailments such as cancer, despite the fact that paradoxical results of scientific enquiry, point to the fact that the body of knowledge surrounding manuka honey’s curative properties [for uses apart from topical healing] is inconclusive. In the article from Runner’s World [referenced above] a registered dietitian states that “if runners have wounds it could potentially speed up the healing process” but that “considering the high price, it might be unrealistic to use it frequently.” In addition, this dietitian notes that it is only medical grade manuka honey that produces this benefit.
In a beauty magazine, Vogue [Online], the writer notes the “near-mythical healing powers” of manuka honey but, she says, the manuka honey industry has a “Big Counterfeiting Problem” and that it is “estimated that up to 83% of Manuka honey on the market is either not as potent or pure as claimed.” The article then goes on to elaborate upon alternative skin care products because “if you're not sure of your Manuka's potency, there are a handful of other actives that promote skin healing.”
The perceptions of manuka honey as shown in these two publications reflects the ambiguity in public opinion which has been developing for years. Back in 2016 Stuff reported that the manuka honey market has been criticized in Britain for misleading consumers , saying that New Zealand apiarists are committing "The Great Manuka Honey Swindle" and overcharging for a product that does not live up to its claims. This situation has recently been further exacerbated by the fraud committed by Evergreen Life who’s director added illegal chemicals to manuka honey to make it appear to have stronger antibacterial properties than it does. Many now believe that the manuka honey industry is being driven by greed.
As if these were not sufficient problems for the industry there have also recently arisen huge threats to bee populations by disease and infestation. American Foul Brood [AFB] is an ongoing scourge amongst both feral and domestic bee populations. This disease, which attacks and destroys the pupa is being controlled at a National level by The Management Agency’s National American Foulbrood Management Plan AFB because, they say, it is “the most serious disease of honey bees in New Zealand. It costs beekeepers an estimated 6% of gross returns and poses a serious risk to New Zealand honey exports valued at $348 million in 2018”. Under this authority any hive and its livestock having AFB must be totally destroyed by burning.
Another serious threat to bees is the varroa mite - a worldwide scourge – detected in New Zealand on 11 April 2000 and is probably the most serious breach of the country’s biosecurity in recent years. The varroa mite carries deformed wing syndrome [DWS] which destroys colonies impacting honey production. However, another, more serious, consequence is the impact this disease would have on pollination amongst farmers and orchardists who rely on honey bees to fertilize their crops. In an economic impact assessment of varroa on agriculture it was reported that without direct Government intervention, varroa was likely to cost between $400 million and $900 million over the next 4 decades . Professor Phil Lester from Victoria University of Wellington's School of Biological Sciences stresses that management of the Varroa mite will not only save the beekeeping industry but will also be advantageous to many other important insects, specifically “spiders, butterflies, beetles, ants" that are also affected by varroa.
Given the dismal picture painted above one could be forgiven for thinking that it would be pointless to begin a career in beekeeping at this time. However, there is an indication that this is not the case. The Agriculture and Forestry sector in the Bay of Plenty [as well as many other regions in New Zealand], have very high demand for Apiarists, so much so in fact that it is on the skill shortage list of NZ Immigration as follows:
A certificate at NZQF Level 4, or a higher qualification, which includes the credit and knowledge requirements of the New Zealand Certificate in Apiculture (Level 4) AND a minimum of two years’ relevant post-qualification work experience in a commercial environment OR a minimum of five years' work experience as an apiarist in a commercial environment
In my opinion it would be much better if local people could be encouraged to fill these positions, but not to produce honey which, as shown above, is being over-supplied on the domestic market. Beekeeping is, admittedly, just a small part of New Zealand’s vibrant agricultural sector, but it is foundational to the success of all crop production. The importance of the bee for pollination of all commercial and natural flowering plants cannot be stressed too strongly. However, there is no comprehensive economic analysis to indicate the real value of pollination services or to emphasise the urgency of the threats facing the honey bee. Historically feral honey bees and other insects [with help from a few vertebrates like birds and bats] provided free pollination services to farmers and orchardists. As climate change has ramped up worldwide, bees [notoriously susceptible to environmental factors] have been depleted and it is important that further declines be prevented.
Many beekeeping businesses regard the health of their livestock as the most important thing as any livestock farmer does. Although there is worldwide recognition of the declining populations of bees, it is only really people who become involved in the caring for bees and crops who are in the frontlines of this war against extinction. Here is where the importance of the environment friendly, industrious and social beekeeper can be seen. The strength of their cohort is in the networking structures that they form between each other to help and support each other. They are an integral part of the agricultural community.
It is the beekeeper who sources high quality nutrition for his bees thus bolstering the colony’s health and resistance to disease, pests, pesticides, and predators.
It is also beekeepers who take responsibility for treating disease or infestation and for providing healthy hives for farmers to use for pollination services.
It is also the beekeeper who takes it upon himself to improve pollinator security in New Zealand searching for ways to prevent the all too common problem of large-scale colony loss as a result of pollen dearth caused by the removal of traditional bee forage.
It is the beekeeper who takes positive, timely steps to reduce the cost of pollination services in large-scale agriculture, also address the four threats to pollinator security in New Zealand’s agriculture rich economy.
It is the beekeeper who takes responsibility to manage his bees in such a way as to bolster the agricultural community’s vulnerability to the four major threats facing these bees - diseases, pesticides, a limited genetic base for breeding varroa-resistant bees, and declining floral resources.
It is the beekeeper who is searching for remedies and prevention measures specific to New Zealand to help reduce the high risk of large-scale, widespread colony losses.