What Is Manuka Honey? A Tale of Two Neighboring Countries

Please note that I may earn a small commission from purchases made through product links in this article at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

 

Last updated: October 16, 2020

Manuka honey is delicious, it is precious, it is expensive, and it is… complicated.

In this article I am going to guide you through the interesting story behind this liquid gold. Because a story is perhaps the best way to explain what Manuka honey is.

It’s a tale of two beautiful and peaceful neighboring countries; New Zealand and Australia. Intrigued? Let’s get started!

The Bitter Fight for the Sweetest Product

“Wait! Is that Buck Shelford?”

“Who?”

I am not a rugby fan like my husband. He had to remind me of another detail.

“The ‘haka’ guy. The All Blacks from New Zealand…. Remember?”

What Do Haka and Honey Have in Common?

Oh sure, that I do remember. The All Blacks performing haka is so impressive. I love to feel the energy they express in the Maori ritual war dance.

“Ok, I got it. The former Maori captain of the All Blacks. What’s up with him?”

“Honey. He’s a testimonial for New Zealand honey.”

This threw me off balance, and surely got my attention. How did he stumble on a former rugby champion, and what does honey have to do with him?

I turned my eyes to the home theater screen. A video news clip was running with former All Blacks Buck Shelford and Sir John Kirwan discussing Mānuka honey.

“Honey is honey, but when it is called Manuka honey and they want to take it overseas… you are actually taking Maori with you. It’s the name, you know. As my wife says, you are taking the children of the forest with you.”

I listened, fascinated, how Buck explained that they don’t want the name to be tahae = stolen in any way.

Who would want to steal a Maori name and why?

Manuka Honey Is a Brand

It’s a brand, he said.

“The Manuka honey from New Zealand, it’s the only true brand you can get around the world.”

Right. Manuka IS famous, several celebrities love it. However, not everyone knows that the indigenous people of New Zealand have a claim to the name.

There are a few things about this liquid gold that I already knew:

  1. Manuka honey has a lot of health benefits.
     
  2. It can cost up to 100 times more than standard honey.
     
  3. there is a huge problem of fakes on the market.

But this sounds like another aspect of the story.

Manuka Is Ours!

Sir John Kirwan, another kiwi rugby glory, joined in.

“Manuka is ours!”

“For me, it’s about families working in a little industry, getting it together and being the world’s best at something.”

They have established a Manuka Trust and the third gentleman in the show, Pita Tipene, is the chairman.

“I consider myself and all New Zealanders as kaitiaki [guardians] and looking after its wairua – its spirit – and it’s Maori and the essence that makes it Mānuka.”

Australian Manuka Honey

The discussion moved on to “Australian Manuka honey”.

Buck expressed some very strong views on that point. “They are criminals!” And then pointed out: “Why do they want our name? They call it ‘tea tree’ in Australia.”

This doesn’t add up. I have used tea tree essential oil for quite a while, I know it is another plant, and it has another name. The flowers are completely different, no way you can mistake one for the other.

Melaleuca Alternifolia vs Leptospermum Scoparium

Melaleuca alternifolia is the scientific name for the tea tree. It is true that Melaleuca is a relative of Leptospermum scoparium, the Manuka tree. Tea tree oil is a famous remedy for a zillion ailments, from skin problems to severe infections.

The tea tree essential oil is distilled from the shrub leaves, which is indeed native to Australia. More precisely, to southeast Queensland and the northeast coast of New South Wales.

What about tea tree honey?

I looked it up, and found a series of things:

  • There really is some confusion. I ran into several cases of Manuka (Leptospermum) honey being called “tea tree”. And also “jellybush”.
     
  • There is also proper tea tree, aka Melaleuca, honey. I found some producers in Australia, but also in Florida! There are several species of Melaleuca there, that were imported from Australia a hundred years ago. Some are actually a pest.
     
  • An Australian company is trying to consolidate a new “Meluka honey” brand. They offer both raw Melaleuca honey and honey infused with tea tree extract. Southern Cross University researchers have been studying the properties of tea tree honey.

All this said, Manuka (Leptospermum) honey is NOT tea tree (Melaleuca) honey. The Leptospermum scoparium grows in Australia too, so both types of honey can be found there.

Manuka honey pot

But the fight is all about the Manuka honey name, the brand. And it is none the less aggressive than a real rugby match.

NZ to Register the Trademark in China

In 2019 the kiwi government joined the fight. They granted NZ$5.7 million ($3.6 million) to the Manuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS) to support a trademark application to Beijing’s Intellectual Property Court.

China?

Well, it is a huge market. According to Bloomberg, half of the profits of the leading exporters of Manuka honey come from China. The affluent Chinese middle class is willing to pay extra (more than 500$ per kg!) for that honey from a “clean” country, as reported by the BBC.

Australian Manuka honey producers freaked out on the possibility of being shut out of the Chinese market. The nightmare again: New Zealand and Australia have been fighting over the trade name for much longer.

The Battle for the UK Market

NZ Manuka honey producers, with their umbrella organization the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association, had already made a move in 2015 to register “Manuka Honey” as their trademark.

This would imply that no one else could use it, not even Australian producers of honey from the same plant.

A body by the name Mānuka Honey Appellation Society (MHAS) was established and applied for the trademark, first in New Zealand and then in the United Kingdom, the US and the EU.

The Aussie beekeepers went ballistic and founded the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), in October 2017, to fight back.

In December 2017, the UK registry granted the claim by the New Zealanders:

“Although the plant ‘Leptospermum scoparium’ is grown in areas outside of New Zealand, it is known by different ‘common’ names in those territories. Therefore, it is accepted that the term ‘Mānuka’ would be seen as designating a specific plant variety grown in New Zealand.”

The UK trademark was opposed by the Australian association and also by some UK producers. It is currently still suspended.

The setback in the trademark battle only spurred the Australian side to raise the stakes. The Aussies are not giving up on this so easily.

Australian Leptospermum Shrubs

“Stakes raised in Australia – New Zealand rivalry over manuka honey as study finds ours is the best”, claims an article from October 2019 by ABC Australia.

They report about a five-year project carried out by three universities: the University of Technology in Sydney, the Sydney University and the University of the Sunshine Coast. They tested more than 5,000 honey and 2,000 nectar samples from all over Australia.

The study was funded by the AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program. And here is a short documentary featuring Dr Simon Williams, from the University of Sunshine Coast, doing fieldwork and collecting Manuka samples.

One of the arguments on the Australian side is that there are as many as 87 species of Leptospermum shrubs worldwide, 84 of which are native to Australia. While New Zealand has only one.

AgriFutures claims that:

  1. At least seven Australian Leptospermum species analyzed in the research program produce medical-grade honey with exceptionally high antibacterial activity.
     
  2. Any other Leptospermum species in Australia produce honeys with therapeutically beneficial activity.
     
  3. Several others would fall under high-value premium table honeys.

The Australian Mark of Authenticity

One more strategic move by the AMHA is the new Australian Mark of Authenticity, the counterpart to the UMF standard of the New Zealanders.

Honey that carries the AMHA’s Mark of Authenticity:

  1. Must be pure, natural Manuka honey, produced entirely in Australia.
     
  2. Must contain Methylglyoxal (MGO) and Dihydroxyacetone (DHA), marker substances of Manuka.
     
  3. Testing must be conducted by an independent analytical laboratory.

The AMHA claims that Australian Manuka is the strongest natural antibacterial honey in the world. They are confident that their new standard will help them prove it.

But New Zealand’s move to secure the trademark in China is seen as a serious threat: Australian producers fear they will be cut out from that market and lose as much A$1 billion ($677 million) in sales.

The global market of Manuka honey is expected to grow to more than 2 billion dollars in the next few years.

No wonder they are fighting.

But what about us, the consumers?

The Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) Grading System

This AU-NZ match has rekindled my interest. The whole story is tempting me to buy a jar of the magic honey, I confess. Not the first time I have considered it.

The health benefits of Manuka honey are very appealing. And also the cosmetic use (even L’Oréal Paris swears by it). I have tried honey face masks before and they do wonders for my skin.

A couple of years ago I took a little tour on Amazon to shop for Manuka, but it left me totally confused. There seemed to be all sorts of numbers and mysterious acronyms flying around, things like: UMF 15+, MGO 400, Active 10+, K factor, 24+ Bio Active, Medical grade 12+…

When you have to fork out about 50$ for a 250 gr. jar, you want to know what you are buying.

Then Good Morning America ran this story on the problem. That was even more discouraging.

I found out that the problem was huge, with ten times as much purported Manuka honey being sold worldwide than it was actually produced in New Zealand.

Ouch!

At this point, it turned into a challenge for me. I wanted to see clear into this story.

Easier said than done! To unravel the mystery around the UMF, MGO & c., I had to plunge into nearly forty years of Manuka honey epics.

The good side to it is that I had a lot of fun. This is fitting material for a TV blockbuster. I enjoyed the journey. Follow me.

What Is UMF

You will bump into this acronym all the time on the labels of Manuka honey jars. More specifically, you will find it in the formats UMF 5+, UMF 10+, UMF 15+, UMF 20+.

And you will notice that the higher the UMF, the more expensive the honey.

The highest grade you can find is UMF 25+, very costly because it is rare. Less than 0.03% of all Manuka honey harvested in New Zealand can obtain the UMF 25+ grade, which indicates an extremely high concentration of the active principle. Expect to pay not less than $160 for a UMF 25+ jar.

And it can even reach an unbelievable $1233.94 for a Rare Harvest extra-ultra-special-unique batch. That is a record-high UMF 31+.

Hives had to be flown with a helicopter to a remote location right in the middle of a Manuka forest, to produce this wonder.

But what is UMF?

The Scientist and the Marketing Man

UMF is not a chemical compound. It is, formally, a trademark!

UMF stands for Unique Manuka Factor, and it came out of the heads of two smart guys. The scientist who discovered the exceptional properties of Manuka honey, and the marketing expert who made it famous.

Dr Peter Molan carried out the first scientific investigation of Manuka honey in 1981 at the Waikato University. He discovered that it had incredibly powerful antibacterial properties.

Bill Floyd, a marketing specialist, joined the Manuka adventure ten years later, in 1991. He delivered a famous speech at the assembly of the National Beekeepers’ Association on the great commercial potential of honey. They hired him to help them with an ambitious industry plan.

In November 1991, Floyd did one little thing that changed the history of New Zealand. He wrote a press release on the extraordinary properties of Manuka honey and faxed it around to the media.

It worked.

Spoon with Manuka honey

The press grew interested in the healing honey. Dr Peter Molan all of a sudden got lots of requests for interviews from all over the world. He had been cooperating with hospitals for years, testing the extraordinary power of Manuka honey to heal wounds and kill bacteria.

No one had noticed until Bill Floyd did his marketing magic.

The Birth of the UMF Trademark

The honey industry in New Zealand then really started to fly.

But in 1998, the Ministry of Health clamped down on any claim of antibacterial properties on the packaging of retail Manuka. Honey, as a food item, was not allowed to make that type of claim.

Molan and Floyd came up with the idea of the Unique Manuka Factor as a solution to this problem. An acronym that could provide some sort of rating, like the SPF for sunscreens.

Molan’s laboratory method to assess each different batch’s power provided the basis for the UMF standard. The acronym was registered as a trademark of the Active Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), the organization that Molan had contributed to establish.

How Molan calculated Manuka Honey’s healing potency, and how the UMF grading method was updated later is a rather complicated story. But it deserves to be told.

The History of Manuka Honey

Curiosity killed the cat. The haka-honey combination had hooked me.

This is why I spent hours in finding more and more pieces of a story that has been going on for forty years, with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.

I found the first reference to Peter Molan, The Man Who Discovered Manuka Honey, in a book.

Manuka Honey Has a Published Biography

There are reasons why New Zealanders are so passionate about defending the Manuka brand. A great fan took the pain of writing: “Manuka: The Biography of an Extraordinary Honey“.

The author, Cliff Van Eaton, is a well-known writer on beekeeping subjects. Manuka’s biography is a lively and lovely account of the adventurous and unusual story of the liquid NZ gold.

It is a story of immigrants and pioneers, who created an industry across several decades with a lot of passion and entrepreneurial determination. Small family businesses that grew into modern international companies. I enjoyed reading it.

There is even a historical prequel from the 19th century.

Mary Had a Little Bee…

A young lady from Yorkshire, who immigrated to New Zealand in 1839, had the merit of introducing the European honey bee there. Mary Bumby brought only two skeps, the traditional wicker beehives, with her on the ship. But that handful of living bees was enough to start an epic tale.

The Maoris did use the Manuka plant as a medicine to treat wounds, burns, stomach aches and other ailments. But they had no adequate sorts of bees to get a honey production going. Mary’s bees multiplied fast, enjoying New Zealand’s bountiful wild flora.

Kiwi beekeeping was born.

No One Liked Manuka

Manuka honey was hardly the star of the show. Beekeepers did not love it because it is dense and difficult to extract. As a food, it was not so successful because of its strong taste.

Clover honey was the darling on the tables. Beekeepers used Manuka combs mostly as food for the bees, or even fed it to the cows.

Manuka as a plant was not really loved either. Lots of it were cleared as an invasive species, to make room for farmland.

The Scientist Who Changed It All

I found a short older documentary that helped me understand the role of Dr Peter Molan in the Manuka honey saga.

Molan was a Welsh immigrant from Cardiff. He established the first biochemistry course at the University of Waikato in 1973. In 1981 Molan and his friend Kerry Simpson discovered that Manuka honey had an unusually strong antibacterial activity.

Simpson was the head of Science at Otorohanga College and a passionate beekeeper. He knew that people commonly used honey as medicine, and that in New Zealand Manuka honey had a reputation as having the best antiseptic properties.

The First Experiment

Simpson was a frequent guest in Molan’s lab, when he needed to carry out some small experiments. He also knew that Molan was doing research in natural antibacterial substances, and persuaded him to help with testing a series of honey samples from different plants.

Molan and Simpson found out that the antibacterial activity of the honey sample from Leptospermum scoparium was several times higher than the others.

That was the dawn of the Manuka honey era.

Molan fell in love with Manuka and literally dedicated his life to it. He involved students and graduates at the University of Waikato. It took the team several years of work, but they changed the history of New Zealand.

The Journal of Apicultural Research published the results of Peter Molan’s work in 1988. For the first time, science paid attention to the fact than one special honey could destroy bacteria up to a hundred times more efficiently than others.

The Bane of Superbugs

The exciting part of the story is that Manuka honey is capable of destroying antibiotic resistant bacteria too; superbugs! Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem.

Bacteria are smart and capable of mutating fast. They are increasingly outsmarting antibiotics. We risk running out of drugs to treat infections. Dr. Nural Cokcetin, a researcher specializing in microbiology at the University of Technology in Sydney, explains the concept very clearly in this Ted Talk.

MRSA – Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, and Pseudomonas Auriginosa are two of the most widespread “superbugs” that Manuka honey can beat.

Molan started to cooperate with hospitals. Manuka proved effective as a dressing for infected wounds that nothing else seemed to be able to heal.

There are several advantages in treating wounds with Manuka honey, as Molan himself explains in this video.

Therapeutic Manuka Honey Inventions

Ok, so this is the big deal: Manuka honey is not simply a delicacy, it’s powerful medicine. Hence its uncommonly high value.

On Peter Molan’s personal website, there still is a list of his Manuka-based inventions, many of which have been patented by the University of Waikato.

Among them:

  • Impregnation of honey into an absorbent dressing pad for use on wounds.
     
  • A coating for honey dressing pads that makes them not sticky to handle.
     
  • Gelling of honey to form a sheet of rubbery consistency for use on wounds.
     
  • Combination of honey with a super-absorbent to keep honey in place on exuding wounds.
     
  • Tableted spray-dried honey powder for use as confectionery that is safe for dental health.
     
  • Solidified honey in the form of lozenges for treating gum disease and sore throats.

In 1995 the New Zealand Honey Industry Trust funded the establishment of Molan’s Honey Research Unit. He was its director from 1995 until 2013.

Enter the Entrepreneurs

The uncommon power of Manuka honey caught the attention of an entrepreneur by the name of Phil Caskey, who established New Zealand’s first specialist Manuka honey company in 1996.

His Apimed Medical Honey Ltd in 2000 started a fruitful cooperation with the University of Waikato, and a medical device company in the UK. Phil Caskey created and registered the first Mānuka honey medical device in the world, a honey wound care dressing.

Some clinical cases in the UK proved the efficacy of the new product on intractable wounds. The British company Advancis Medical managed to get it on the Drug Tariff of the UK National Health Service in 2005.

Manuka honey on yogurt

In the meanwhile, the Australian side was not sleeping. In June 1995, Australia’s largest honey packer, Capilano Honey, began researching the therapeutic and wound healing properties of honey, including Manuka. They registered the Medihoney trademark in the class of medicinal, pharmaceutical and therapeutic products.

Capilano disembarked on the British market in 2002, both with the brand “Australian Manuka Clear Honey” and with the Medihoney therapeutic line.

So that’s how the NZ – AU match to conquer the UK market started.

Sweet Turns Sour

The largest player of all, in the end, gobbled up both Apimed ltd (and Molan’s patents with it!) and the trademark Medihoney from Capilano. The Kiwi market maker Comvita bought both.

In 2006, the University of Waikato formed a joint venture with Comvita. The company would finance research in exchange for rights to discoveries by the university’s scientists.

The partnership had a bitter ending in court litigation shortly afterwards. The reason? Something had happened.

A discovery made at the other end of the world, in Germany, turned the tables for the whole sector.

What Makes Manuka Honey So Unique?

The crazy thing in this whole Manuka-gold rush was that no one actually knew WHY it worked!

To a certain extent, all honeys have an antibacterial and antifungal effect. Honey has been used in wound dressing all along in human history. It was the discovery of penicillin and the rise of the antibiotics that pushed honey wound dressing into oblivion.

Manuka showed much higher efficacy than honey from other flowering plants. But Molan himself was not sure why, i.e. what the “mystery ingredient” responsible for the effect was. He explained this in an interview to the BBC in 2004.

What Is NPA and What Is Active Manuka Honey?

All sorts of honey have antimicrobial properties because they produce hydrogen peroxide when diluted, thanks to an enzyme called glucose oxidase. The effect doesn’t last long, though, because human blood neutralizes hydrogen peroxide.

Molan and Simpson, when they started investigating, realized that there had to be something else involved, if Manuka honey was so much more powerful. Their famous first experiment revolved just about that. They neutralized the hydrogen peroxide activity and measured the rest: the Non-Peroxide Activity – NPA.

Molan compared it to the effect of a common disinfectant, phenol. So the original way his UMF – Unique Manuka Factor was measured was equivalent to a phenol solution. For example, a UMF 10+ honey had the same antibacterial potency as a 10% phenol solution.

Not all harvested Manuka honey showed this type of activity, so a distinction started to be made between “normal” and Active Manuka Honey.

No one really knew what the mystery ingredient was. Twenty years later, the discovery was made by a German scientist.

Enter… Methylglyoxal (MGO)

In 2006, Professor Thomas Henle and his team at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, discovered that the mystery ingredient is Methylglyoxal (MGO).

They published their results in “Molecular nutrition & food research”, in April 2008.

“In six samples of Manuka honey from New Zealand, concentrations for MGO ranged from 38 to 761 mg/kg, which is up to 1000-fold higher than corresponding data for the conventional honey samples. Interestingly, there was an indication that the ‘UMF-value’, which is a commercially used parameter to rate the antibacterial activity of Manuka honey, is directly related to the content of MGO.”

“With our findings, we unambiguously demonstrate for the first time that MGO is directly responsible for the antibacterial activity of Manuka honey. It is noteworthy that such high amounts of MGO as present in Manuka honey have not yet been found for any other food item. Low amounts of enzymatically formed GO and MGO were reported for fermented foods such as milk products as well as beer and wine, with concentrations ranging from 3 to 11 mg/kg. Furthermore, MGO is known to form during coffee roasting in amounts of 23–47 mg/mg.”

(Source)

Nothing Short of an Earthquake

A lot of strife followed Henle’s discovery. He was in a partnership with one of the NZ Manuka Honey companies (“Manuka Health“). They got into a lot of polemics with the Active Manuka Honey Association about standards.

More dramatically, Peter Molan himself broke with the association. He also tried to establish a new quality measurement standard.

Most of these different standards still stick around.

So now we know why there are so many acronyms creating confusion on the market.

Keep in mind that at this point Manuka was already big business. Seventeen years had gone by since Bill Floyd sent his famous press release around. Sales of the magic honey were skyrocketing. Profits were counted in tens of millions of dollars. The problem with fakes was a real threat to the industry.

Measuring the quality of each batch of Manuka honey in a reliable way was absolutely a big deal. If the honey businessmen were to keep clients’ trust for this luxury product.

MGO Derives From DHA

Despite all the turmoil, the discovery of MGO was a very positive leap ahead. Thomas Henle and Peter Molan later cooperated in further research.

They still had to answer the question, “Why Does Manuka Honey Produce Methylglyoxal?

“We have been speaking about it, but we will not talk about this now. There is a lot of rivalries… We don’t give away our ideas”, you can hear Molan saying in that video. Molan and Henle mention the fact that Manuka honey is the only one that contains DHA (Dihydroxyacetone), the substance that turns into MGO when the honey matures.

That MGO comes from its precursor DHA was another discovery by Molan and team in 2009. DHA is a saccharide, a sugar, abundant in fresh Manuka honey. It takes some time for DHA to convert into MGO: “Nectar washed from manuka flowers contained high levels of dihydroxyacetone (DHA) and no detectable methylglyoxal (MGO).” This is why the honey has to be kept in storage for a while to develop its famous “unique factor”.

The chemical process of transformation is natural, but according to Molan’s findings, heating the honey at 37 degrees helps the conversion.

The other thing that Molan discovered was that “addition of dihydroxyacetone to clover honey followed by incubation resulted in methylglyoxal levels similar to those found in manuka honey.”

These findings opened the way for another round of dramatic events in the Manuka saga.

The Dark Side of the Manuka Honey Gold Rush

The race between fakers and makers, so to speak, was raising its stakes. The discovery of MGO helped to improve testing and quality standards, but it also gave new ideas of new tricks to those willing to play dirty.

New Ways of Faking It

Adding DHA and MGO to honey seemed a genial idea to artificially trick the tests and make batches of Manuka honey stronger.

DHA is a very common ingredient, mainly used in self-tan products. As we have seen, the effect of a higher UMF grade on the price of Manuka honey is huge.

Suspects and rumors about these practices became rather common. Until a Big Case made the headlines in 2016, when the products of Auckland-based Evergreen Life were recalled from the market. Someone had tipped the NZ Ministry for Primary Industries that the company had been adding DHA and MGO during the processing of their Manuka honey.

New Zealand’s food safety agency prosecuted Evergreen Life. The company pleaded guilty in April 2019 to seven representative charges of “selling adulterated honey with intent to deceive for material gain and of selling non-compliant honey”. They were fined a total of $372,500.

In an official statement, the Ministry for Primary Industries director of compliance Gary Orr said that this was the first case of honey adulteration ever to be detected in New Zealand. “The adulterated honey obviously commanded a greater price in the market place. The company benefited to the tune of approximately $700,000 because of its deliberate and calculated fraud.”

Leptosperin, the Third Marker

The Active Manuka Honey Association, which changed its name in 2011 to Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA), was well aware of the risk of counterfeit with DHA/MGO. They kept searching for something more to make testing really foolproof.

The UMFHA launched an ambitious Manuka Honey Identification Project. In 2012, they were joined by a Japanese scientist, Professor Yoji Kato, who had met Manuka honey while he was doing a research project in New Zealand. He told the story during a symposium which you can read here.

In 2010, Kato had identified a substance that can be found only and exclusively in Manuka honey and called it Leptosperin.

Leptosperin was finally THE turning point. Unlike DHA and MGO, Leptosperin is a complicated substance, neither easy nor cheap to fake. And it is stable, heath cannot adulterate it.

Professor Kato had patented the use of Leptosperin, and he licensed it to the UMF Honey Association. In 2015 the UMFHA presented the breakthrough findings to the Primary Production Select Committee of the NZ Parliament.

The new protocol for Manuka Honey Authenticity Testing was developed in cooperation with Fera Science in the UK. As a consequence of the new discovery, the UMF Honey Association updated its methodology to define the UMF grading system. Now it includes all three markers, DHA, MGO and Leptosperin.

Was this the end of all problems?

Nope. It really brought about a new wave of wild reactions.

The Attacks on Beehives

The new discoveries nailed down the question of authenticity with laser focus: unless you get your bees to work in a real Manuka pasture, you ain’t faking it no longer!

There was an unexpected dramatic reaction to these novelties, as I found out when I bumped into this title: Honey fights: Millions of bees slaughtered.

Manuka honey beehives

The new “honey-gold rush” had produced its own dark side. The international market for Manuka honey had started to really take off around 2012, 2013.

A series of celebrities began to use it and promote it, like tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who claimed to eat spoonfuls of it every day. Kourtney Kardashian started to splash it on her face too.

By 2016 the whole story had turned into a madhouse. Armies of novices were placing beehives everywhere Manuka shrubs could be found. Jars of Manuka honey were targeted by shoplifters, both in the UK and New Zealand. Beehives were stolen by the hundreds.

And bees got poisoned by the millions.

The Get-Rich-Quick Manuka Madness

Manuka grows wild in large extents of territory, especially on the Northern Island. The plant has very small seeds that spread easily. Leptosperium scoparium is actually quite invasive. Years back it was considered a pest of agricultural lands and attempts were made at eradicating it.

Then the world turned upside down. Those swaths of wild bush were coveted by all those who hoped to get rich quick with Manuka honey.

Here you have a brilliant example of that madness: “How to make a $1m in your first year beekeeping“.

I am not a beekeeper, but I have some friends among beekeepers. They taught me a lot throughout the years. So let me tell you, reading the text above gave me the shivers!

NO WAY you can start beekeeping with 1000 hives! Beekeeping is an art. It requires tons of specialized knowledge. Bees are living beings. They need a lot of care.

See how a veteran does it in this lovely short video.

Land Wars?

Bees need pasture like cows. And not even the wilderness is endless. When the craze began, worries about looming land wars emerged. Fears that there will not be enough room for everybody.

Hence the savage raids launched by the new “Manuka cowboys” to get rid of the competition. Even if you don’t poison them, piling hundreds of hives in a close area can only end up by starving the bees.

The Future: Back to the Bush

The solution was under everyone’s eyes all the time:

Grow more Manuka!

Millions of Manuka Trees Planted on Thousands of Hectares

Luckily, something very smart had been initiated long before the wild wild era of the attacks on beehives. Starting in 2011, some of the main players of the Manuka honey market, including Comvita, formed the Manuka Research Partnership Ltd and began to establish High Performance Manuka Plantations.

The Manuka Research Partnership is one of the NZ Government’s 21 primary growth partnerships. In 2016 they established Manuka Farming New Zealand, the commercial arm of the operation. They have been providing many millions of Manuka seedlings to both the government and private clients.

So, the Kiwis are busy replanting the wilderness like crazy. Want to see what it looks like? Have a look at how they are planting Manuka in Mangamahu, a major operation involving a million seedlings. Dry, bare mountains that are going to be covered in green again in a couple of years. Wow!

The Environment Says: Thanks!

A series of additional bonuses are spurring the mass plantations campaign:

  1. Manuka trees help combat soil erosion.
     
  2. Manuka roots reduce nitrate leaching into waterways.
     
  3. Job creation is revitalizing local communities.

$1.2 Billion in Earnings From Manuka Honey

This is the goal of the New Zealand government, to be achieved by 2026. They have taken up a rhythm of planting more than 9 million Manuka seedlings every year.

In 2018 the government gave away 1.8 million seedlings for free to qualifying farmers. Then they launched the One Billion Trees Fund grant programme. Financial support is available to farmers who decide to go into Manuka planting.

“We now have 5 high performing mānuka cultivars, that flower at different times and have been field-tested in a range of environments over several years and can now be best matched to sites to produce high UMF honey that has a higher return for the landowner at the farm gate”, informs Manuka Farming NZ on their website, encouraging farmers to take the plunge.

Manuka Oil

There is more. The clever Kiwis realized that if the good stuff comes from the plant, perhaps you can bypass the bees and get Manuka’s healing properties in another way.

Harvesting not only the flowers but also the tips of the branches, some companies are now producing Manuka essential oil too.

The new line of business pivots on the New Zealand Manuka Group, the new venture by Phil Caskey. Remember, one of the pioneer entrepreneurs from the Nineties? He’s back in the game, with a package that offers better rewards to land owners who were not getting fair compensation from Manuka growing on their property.

Manuka oil has a quality grading system too.

What About Australia?

This is where we started this story, right? The rivalry between New Zealand and Australia.

Australian producers are working on the development of Manuka plantations and the production of Manuka oil too. In Western Australia there is a Leptospermum plant-breeding programmme involving Kings Park and Botanical Gardens.

The goal is to produce hybrid plants that can grow in hot and cold climates and extend their flowering period from six weeks to six months. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation is supporting a three-year program with $750,000.

Bee on Manuka flowers

The Government of South Australia launched a plantation project too, in 2018. A small 10-hectare trial. While in Adelaide it was a private entrepreneur who lobbied the government into a reforestation plan and then involved universities too.

Another company in Sydney is planning to develop hundreds of hectares of plantations to produce high-grade medical Manuka.

In short, Australia is buzzing too.

Small Quantities, Great Value

Small New Zealand is on top of the world as a honey exporter. They were actually the second biggest exporter of natural honey in dollar value in 2019.

Well, this is huge. I wanted to know, at this point: how much Manuka honey does New Zealand produce, in the end?

I found the answer in the Apiculture monitoring report for 2019 of the Ministry for Primary Industries.

New Zealand exported 2,369 tonnes between July and December 2019, which is actually a really low amount. But still, they are the biggest exporter in dollar value. That goes to show how expensive it is!

The New Zealand Government Has the Last Word

After decades of sweating by the producers to define standards and tests… in December 2017 the Kiwi government came out with its own standards!

And they include four chemicals and a DNA test that have nothing to do with UMF, MGO and DHA. The goal is to determine that the honey is geographically from New Zealand without any possible doubt under the sun.

The new rules are described on the web page of the Ministry for Primary Industries. They concern so far only the authorization for exports.

The Takeaway

After this deep, deep plunge into the adventurous story of Manuka honey, I paused and wondered: am I any wiser, when it comes to making a decision on buying my first little jar of the liquid gold?

Well, yes.

There are a few clear points that I can make:

  1. Manuka is definitely a brand. The plant can grow anywhere in the world, but the Kiwis sweated it all the way, across forty years. They turned a disliked marginal sticky jelly into the object of desire. They contributed the science, the marketing, the entrepreneurship, the innovation, the government’s serious involvement in it. I think it makes sense when they claim “Manuka is ours”.
     
  2. I plan to try Australian honey from Leptospermum shrubs too. The mammoth research effort the Aussies have put into researching those 80+ species of the plant is awesome.
     
  3. When it comes to the effort to protect the product from frauds, NZ has the upper hand so far. Now they have the industry’s standard – the UMF (which includes MGO), and the government’s standard. Double protection. Producers registered with the UMF Honey Association have a unique license number that can be checked easily. Fine by me, I will definitely check the license number of the UMF-certified provider when I make my final choice from whom to buy.
     
  4. I hope the Kiwis and the Aussies find an agreement. They are both awesome. And the world clearly needs more Manuka honey. Better make it than fake it.

There you have it. Manuka honey, a tale of two countries.

Discover Manuka honey

 
 
Donna Harrison

I created Healthy Food Tribe because I am passionate about discovering new foods and learning everything about them. I am also a smoothie fanatic and I document all my favorite recipes here on my blog.

Leave a Comment