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Honey worries buzzing

Hunter Reilly beekeepers cross-checking hives. PHOTO/STU FERGUSON

South Wairarapa manuka honey producer Stu Ferguson says that beekeepers face a lot of pressure at this time of the season.

As nights get colder, honey starts to freeze and gets stuck in the extraction plant.

“We’re working every moment we can,” Ferguson said.

But despite their intense work schedules, beekeepers like Ferguson stood to make less money each year, as productions costs outstripped profits.

According to the Ministry for Primary Industries 2020 Apiculture Monitoring Report, the average price paid to beekeepers for non-manuka honey dropped by 30 to 50 per cent in the 2019-2020 season.

The price for clover honey had fallen steadily for the previous three years, from a range of $10-14 per kilogram in the 2016-2017 season to a range of $2.50-5.50 per kg in the 2019-2020 season.

Manuka honey had a much wider price range, varying from $4.50 to $130 in the 2019-2020 season.

However, the MPI report said that even the prices offered for monofloral manuka honey – traditionally a strong performer on the international market – trended towards the lower end of the price range.

“With the record honey crop in 2019/20, coupled with high production in the previous two seasons, high stocks of honey has become a significant issue for the industry,” the report said.

“Increasing honey stocks have forced some beekeepers to accept significantly lower prices than in previous years, particularly for non-manuka honeys.”

Industry regulations had exacerbated the trend toward lower honey prices.

In December 2017, MPI had implemented a scientific definition to distinguish between monofloral and multifloral manuka honey. Previously, beekeepers had categorised monofloral manuka as honey produced by bees foraging solely from the manuka flower. However, this was not easy to verify.

The scientific paper recognised that although beehives may be placed at sites mostly composed of manuka plants, bees may not always forage from the main flowering plant in the area.

Part of the aim of establishing the criteria was to provide regulatory assurances in the marketplace, so international customers could trust New Zealand’s manuka brand.

“By adhering to high standards, we can help drive more value for Kiwi exporters and their products,” agriculture minister Damien O’Connor said in a media statement on the MPI report.

Those high standards were defined by a combination of five different markers – four chemicals, and DNA – that could be found in manuka honey.

“Something had to happen with the monofloral manuka standard,” Ferguson said.

His company Hunter Reilly attempted to produce monofloral manuka honey that met the new scientific markers.

However, he said that an unintended consequence of the regulations was that large corporations could simply blend lesser-grade honeys to create high-grade manuka honey.

“We’re all going out fastidiously trying to get monofloral manuka, but the problem is they are making it out of scrips and scraps,” Ferguson said.

Corporations could blend honey that was high in one marker, such as phenyllactic acid, with another honey that was high in a different marker, such as methoxybenzoic acid.

The result would be a honey that met the scientific definition of monofloral manuka – and could therefore be sold as such.

“They’re mixing two non-manukas or multifloral manukas together, with different markers,” Ferguson said. “When you put them together, they make monofloral.”

Ferguson said that this allowed large corporations to buy lesser value honey from different places and mix it together to create a higher value honey.

“What they do is take $10 honey from here and $10 honey from there, they put it together, and they make something that meets the classification that they can sell for $20 or $30. So, they can double their value.”

As a result, ‘true’ monofloral honey was slower to sell.

Ferguson said that on the one hand, the blending method was efficient, as it made use of most of the lower-grade honey.

However, it had driven prices for lower-grade honey down to such a low level that people were no longer extracting it.

Ferguson said that a lot of people would likely leave the industry soon as production costs outweighed profits.

“The writing is on the wall.”

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