Two Beekeepers in the New Zealand Bush

Honey is almost emblematic of New Zealand, like surf beaches, kiwis and hobbits, and Winnie the Pooh would drool thinking about it.  I leaped at the chance to spend a day with a professional beekeeper whose hives are in the bush for making Manuka honey.

We left home in the dark at 6 AM for a short drive to Steve’s depot where he picked up a portable incubator containing several dozen queen bee cells. He is passionate about the industry in which he has worked for over a decade, learning the ways of honey bees on the job. There is a Honey Research Center at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, but there are no professional qualifications for beekeeping, which is surprising for an industry so vital to New Zealand’s agriculture.

His firm has six fulltime staff plus a few students who are hired during the busy summer months, and that is how Steve got involved. Cambridge Bee Products currently manages around 5,300 bee colonies, and expanding. As a backyard beekeeper in Virginia I gasped at the scale, but evidently his company is far from the largest in the country. The industry is thriving and, compared with other sectors of agriculture including dairy, it has never suffered a recession. His company barely meets demand for its finest product—Manuka, the most highly prized honey in the world (see previous post) which, in good years, is more than 70% of his harvest, and 95% of which is exported.

The roads were wet from overnight rain when our truck pulled into his depot. Parking space was limited beside a forklift truck and the neat piles of Langstroth hive boxes and barrels containing 300 kg of honey when full. In the dim light I couldn’t see an alarm system, but the property had to be secure because I had seen the firm’s honey for sale in a local health food shop at over NZ$100 per kg. A quick calculation estimated that each barrel of the best grade is worth tens of thousands of dollars, though middlemen and retailers take a large bite of the raw value.

The honey harvest is brought to the premises from remote parts of the North Island. Manuka honey is certified by the UMF Honey Association to guarantee authenticity and grade it for quality because many brands contain only a fraction of the active product while others are fraudulently adulterated with cheap honey or syrup.

Barrels of honey, hive boxes and ingots of beewax
Barrels of honey, hive boxes and ingots of beewax

Inside the warehouse ranks of orange barrels and colorful hive boxes rose to the roof. The boxes were made by the staff from pine boards treated with a non-toxic preservative and paint; they have a lifespan of around 20 years in the field. In front of them large yellow bars were neatly stacked like gold ingots at Fort Knox, but weighing a mere 6 kg. They were pure beeswax extracted from old honeycomb for making candles and other molded products.

Honey is the company’s main business compared with big bee firms in America who make most of their income from pollination services for farmers by migrating thousands of hives around the country to crops as they blossom in turn. Only for a few weeks do some of Steve’s hives stand in fields for pollinating kiwi fruit, avocados and blueberries, and none of those crops produce quality honey.

Comb decapper and two honey extractors
Comb decapper and two honey extractors

I followed Steve into the honey production plant through a series of adjoining rooms to admire his automated equipment. Backyard beekeepers extract honey with heated knives to decap comb, but it’s a slow and messy process. His first machine decaps in seconds by piercing the comb with arrays of short spikes mounted on a metal plate that precisely match the centers of cells across the frame. Afterwards in groups of eight, frames are loaded into stainless steel extractors to centrifuge the honey to the sides where it drains for collection. The honey is then heated in a large vessel to kill yeast or other cells that might be present before filtration and storage in barrels. At the final stage a machine automatically fills bottles with 250 or 500 or 1,000 g of honey, and even puts on lids and labels.

I liked the clean facilities and that nothing was wasted. Frames were recycled about every five years with a fresh plastic base coated in wax for the bees to draw. Honey residues were collected as sticky molasses for farm animal food, the wax was extracted in a larger melter, and any comb that remained was used as fertilizer.

After the tour I was eager to meet the rest of the team who live in bush country north of Lake Taupo. It was getting light outside when we hopped back in the truck for a two-hour ride.

Hive-ho in a bee yard
Hive-ho in a bee yard

The hives were stationed in groups of two or three dozen in glades that he called “yards,” and out of sight from thieving eyes on country roads. Hive robbing and vandalizing happens. He lamented that at one time there was an unspoken gentleman’s agreement not to place hives within a kilometer or two of a competitor, but as profit attracts courtesy retreats. ‘tis often so.

The bee yards were chosen for local abundance of tea trees which provide the nectar for bees to convert into Manuka.  Steve groaned that too many trees are torn down by landowners who think they are eyesores and don’t realize or care that bees make a precious product from them, like turning base metal into gold. Of course, they never feed exclusively from tea trees, and the grade of Manuka depends on the location and season. The coconut-scented yellow blossom of gorse attracts insects in early spring, and purple heather feeds them at the end of the summer. A long blooming season offers a wide menu in the bush, but the rewa trees stand out for their fabulous red flowers for bees to drink from deeply.

When we arrived at the first yard, the hives looked pint-sized with only a brood box or no more than one super on top. Had I come before the honey harvest in January they would have been piled shoulder high with supers heavy in comb. A super full of honey can weigh 35 kg, enough to coin a name for a medical syndrome, “Apiarist’s Back.” I was too mortified to describe our tiny harvests.

We donned bee suits and started inspecting each hive in turn. Removing the galvanized roof and inner cover exposed the ends of nine full-sized frames, and encouraged a few guard bees to fly out to inspect us. The brood boxes had a couple of small entrances the size of a ten cent coin and stood on stout wooden frames with a wire mesh floor which was left uncovered year round.

Nice frame
Nice frame

As I probed Steve for statistics I wondered how kiwi apiaries can be so productive and colony losses so slight, rarely exceeding 10% a year. Could weather and climate be partly responsible? I was surprised that the climatic zone was not much different to ours in Tidewater Virginia (8 cf. 7b), because our summers are hotter and more humid, while our winters are longer and colder. Since his winters are almost frost-free, nectar flows for much longer and colonies only need feeding for 2-4 weeks if at all. Another factor I considered was the advantage that his colonies have out of range of sprays and other hazards in gardens and farmers’ fields. Then I thought about the lower load of parasites and diseases in a clean environment, although I was surprised how many of them have already reached New Zealand. American (though not European) foulbrood is there, I saw silken evidence of wax moths in some boxes, and that great foe the vampire mite, Varroa destructor, arrived in New Zealand over 15 years ago. Australia is the only country with a major honey industry free of mites, although it had a close call last year when dock officials in Brisbane found bees infested with them in a shipment of goods from Malaysia. It’s only a matter of time before Aussies share our woes. But we saw very few mites that day, which he credits to formic acid pads laid under inner covers and oxalic acid which he sprays through entrance holes. Both of these treatments are considered natural, and they don’t persist in honey or wax. Hive beetles were absent, but robbing bees and wasps sometimes stripped a hive, but that’s a universal problem. When I asked him about colony collapse disorder and killer bees, he nodded to acknowledge that it is a big issue in other countries.

I came away with the impression that no single reason explained the health and productivity of bees in New Zealand. There were additive advantages of a better climate, fewer parasites and less pollution. He didn’t and couldn’t make frequent inspections like we do, but was anxious to breed beneficial traits, by which he meant productive queens and docile worker bees.

His hives are re-queened annually and the company buys genetically superior queens every year from a specialist breeder who uses artificial insemination to guarantee the character of their progeny rather than leaving fertilization to the vagaries of a nuptial flight. In the field, bees hybridize with unknown drones, but he like to see more Carniolan character: “The blacker the better.”

We visited the yards not for mere inspection but to re-queen and split hives to make nucs for new colonies. Delicate queen cells that had been warming in an incubator plugged in the truck and protected inside conical plastic jackets were now placed inside hives, one or two per frame. “Sometimes by chance I see a resident queen,” he told me, “but I can’t go through every hive so they all get a potential heir or two to fight it out until the fittest survives.”  Weak colonies were ruthlessly culled, much like a farmer might eliminate animals too sick for veterinary care. I reflected on the pains we take to save a colony from fading away until I remembered the number in his care.

It seemed odd to split hives in late summer when we schedule it for springtime to avoid the risk of swarming and in time for nucs to establish while nectar flows. But he used a familiar procedure, transferring four frames from active colonies to each nuc box, including eggs, nectar and pollen, plus a shower of worker bees. He worked fast, watching the sun’s arc because he wouldn’t return to the yards for months.

End of the day
End of the day

This work quickly filled the air with thousands of angry bees that a smoker didn’t pacify. I took the precaution of wearing gloves, but Steve had bare hands. He worked more nimbly with uncovered fingers, even if they were crawling with bees. On the ride home I mentioned I had seen him rubbing his wrist. “Did you get stung?” I asked. “Na.  Maybe only ten today.” That reply reminded me of another plucky New Zealand beekeeper, and who first scaled Everest.

After we returned home to Cambridge I had much to think about. How to apply some of the practices I had to our modest endeavors? What is the future for bees in a changing world, and will they hold out longer in New Zealand and Australia?  And I was also thinking about the remote Blue Duck Station close to the pristine Whanganui National Park. That is where he keeps the most productive hives, and some of those yards are accessed by helicopter. I am already savoring that visit for next time.

Drafted in New Zealand

Next Post: Ghost of the Moa

Is there Manuka Honey for Tea?

When Captain James Cook anchored in New Zealand after a long voyage across the Pacific Ocean he was probably dying for a cup-of-tea. It was already a popular drink in England by the 18th Century when he sailed from Whitby, and a pot of tea warming in a brown betty is still a familiar sight in Yorkshire. I remember people brewing it for hours to make a really strong cuppa, extracting enough tannin to cure a deer hide.

brew a cup of tea
my Brown Betty

The native people he encountered persuaded him to try making “tea” from the spiky leaves of a scraggy tree called Manuka in the Maori language, which his sailors named the tea tree (not to be confused with the Australian tea tree from which the famous oil is extracted). I too was missing Yorkshire tea on my latest visit to New Zealand and wanted to try Maori tea for myself. After brewing a bunch of dried tea tree leaves for an hour, the water turned faintly orange and developed a citrus fragrance. If appearances could be trusted, the “tea” was promising, but I hadn’t reckoned on a bitter assault of my palate by the terpenoids. Perhaps that experience hurried Cook home for his brown betty.

Tea tree (Manuka)
Tea tree (Manuka)

The tea tree might have remained in obscurity after Cook’s experiment because, apart from a seasonal show of white or pink blossoms, it is an ugly shrub. But sometimes there is great virtue and fortune hiding beneath an unattractive exterior. Someone noticed that nectar collected by honey bees from tea trees makes a highly distinctive kind of honey, which has become the most prized in the world. It looks like mud in a bottle or spread across a slice of toast, and most unappetizing compared to the clear and syrupy product in your grocery store. It tastes oily or earthy and lacks the intense sweetness that characterizes most honeys. It is so expensive that Tesco supermarkets in the UK lock it inside security boxes with alarms to thwart shoplifting. As caviar is to shrimp and vintage Burgundy is to a cheap Cab, manuka is to “garden” types of honey. It is gooey gold, as rare as the ore itself.

The reputation of Manuka honey forges past scientific and pecuniary caution like most other supposed health products, and goes even further. Some people speak of it reverently as if it is holy water. There is no doubt that it has antimicrobial activity, but regular honey has plenty from its peroxide and high sugar content from which it earned a reputation for wound healing even in ancient times. But it possesses other pharmacological properties that are unique and may make it superior for attacking bacteria and fungi. At least some medical professionals are convinced, because medical grade Manuka honey is used in wound dressings (it stings). But most people purchase it because they enjoy a spoonful as a treat, or to impress their guests with a luxury product going up in smoke after spreading it liberally over barbecued fish, or for treating a skin eruption or warding off a gastrointestinal devil. Manuka enjoys a high reputation because it is a product of the relatively clean New Zealand environment where it is harvested from hives deep in the bush far from crop spraying.

It is la crème de la crème for New Zealand beekeepers and their most valuable “crop” which they must guard against fake products because it is as vulnerable to fraud as a Vuitton or Gucci handbag.

Some cheaper Manuka honey mixes on NZ grocery shelves
Some cheaper Manuka honey mixes on NZ grocery shelves

As a natural product honey can never be guaranteed to be uniform or from a “pure” source. Bees have favorite food plants but a colony visits a range of flowers which vary during the flying season. Manuka is not in flower all the year round, and the properties of its nectar vary between seasons, sites and specimens. Every batch of honey is different, and therein is a dilemma for beekeepers preserving the quality and reputation of their product, and for customers who don’t want to be scammed.

Of course, you can be sure that honey marketed as Manuka at unbelievably cheap prices is unbelievable, but beyond that the customer has to look for an official sign of authenticity. There are plenty of brands labeled Manuka that honestly declare the fraction of the whole, but according to what I heard over 80% of that advertised as the genuine thing in Asia is adulterated with regular honey or syrup.

Beekeepers go to great lengths to protect their industry. One firm I know safeguards its product by bottling and labeling the entire harvest on its own premises. It is also licensed by the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association which is a guarantor of quality after testing three compounds that account for some of the non-peroxide antimicrobial activity. Genuine products can be recognized by the UMF® label, and are rated for quality up to 20 (rarely available). UMF is the “official” standard, but customers are confused by ratings from an independent company which uses a different scale. In one airport shop I saw a kilogram bottle rated at MGO 800+ which is roughly equivalent to UMF 20. By the way, it cost NZ$800!

You might think the best test of Manuka in honey is the proportion of pollen grains from the tea tree. Unfortunately, the related Kanuka tree is also a favorite food plant of bees, but it has almost indistinguishable pollen and it doesn’t produce such a valuable crop of honey.

The UMF laboratory tests three compounds, including methylglyoxal (MGO) which is given the most credit for healing properties since it kills bacteria long after peroxide activity is degraded by catalase activity in human tissues. There little MGO in fresh honey, but it builds up during storage as the concentration of dihydroxyacetone (DHA) declines. DHA is the second compound tested for UMF. It is used elsewhere as a fake sun-tanning agent and I guess contributes to the browning of proteins in Manuka honey.

Beekeepers can’t sleep peacefully after their products pass the UMF test because MGO and DHA can be bought as pure compounds for adulterating “garden quality” honey. When I checked with an American chemical company from which I used to obtain lab supplies I could buy quantities of both compounds for a few hundred bucks, enough to fool labs of tons of honey. The industry is aware that a cat-and-mouse game may already be in play with fraudsters and is looking for more robust markers. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry can generate a molecular fingerprint of honey samples which should be foolproof. The equipment tests far more markers than can easily be added and requires technical expertise, but the expense will eat into profits. The tea tree produces a wondrous honey, but it comes at a high cost and bitter taste.

Auckland Airport
Medicate with Manuka! (Auckland Int. Airport)

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