Downside to NZ’s Booming Manuka Honey Industry
The global craze for manuka, highly valued for its medicinal properties, has created a gold rush in rural New Zealand that some believe is rapidly spiralling out of control, Eleanor Ainge Roy reports in a feature for the Guardian. Its popularity has led to mass poisonings, thefts, vandalism and beatings.
When tens of thousands of bees died in 300 hives in the otherwise idyllic landscape of Doubtless Bay, the day became known as “the massacre”.
For David Yanke (pictured) and Rachel Kearney, co-owners of Daykel Apiaries, the cause of death was obvious: malicious poisoning.
“It is a nightmare, I don’t feel safe any more,” says Kearney as she sits at her kitchen table on her family’s farm, 40km east of Kaitaia. “I feel violated.”
Daykel and many other apiarists are in no doubt that the mass bee death is just the latest act of violence in the increasingly crime-ridden manuka honey industry.
Last year produced a record haul of nearly 20,000 tonnes of honey, a 15% increase on the year before. In 2010 the top price fetched for bulk manuka honey was NZ$37.50/kg (£22/kg) – today it can command more than NZ$100/kg.
The export to the UK, China and other countries is expected to reach NZ$400m in the next few years.
On the back of the boom, hive thefts, vandalism and poisonings have become standard fare, with every beekeeper interviewed for this article the victim of one or more serious crimes. Verbal threats and physical beatings have also been reported and there are unconfirmed reports that beekeepers now travel in packs for protection to work remote hives.
The honey produced by bees who feed on those flowers has become highly valued for its medicinal properties, especially as a salve or wound dressing.
Positioning honey hives close to the plants means beekeepers can market their honey as “manuka” and sell it for triple the price of standard clover honey, even if the active manuka content is so low as to be negligible.
In the past five years the New Zealand apiculture industry has responded to rampant international demand for its unique product by doubling production, making Yanke’s former bee haven in Taipa increasingly claustrophobic.
Beekeeper Bill Guest, 93, from Panguru constructed his first hive at the age of 14 with wood felled from a native Kauri tree.
The manuka crime wave is anathema to his father, who came of age when beekeeping was seen as a noble profession and Sir Edmund Hillary the archetypal beekeeper.
These days, Guest prefers to potter in his vegetable garden and largely keeps away from the farm’s 200 hives. After years of poisonings and vandalism, his heart has gone out of beekeeping.
“I feel so bad for the beekeepers today,” says Guest, who returned from the Second World War with the sole ambition of building up his hives. “It has become so nasty now, I don’t like to think about it. The sweetness has gone.”
Original article by Eleanor Ainge Roy, The Guardian, November 4, 2016.
Photo by Jessie Casson.