Mānuka blooms first in Northland, and then moves down the country in a white wash of blossom. By Christmas, the season is over—unless beekeepers follow it south.
It’s a week before Christmas, and Sera Grubb and Bobby Leef are chasing the flower, in a convoy of trucks carrying 20 million bees. They’ve driven through the night from Awanui, just north of Kaitaia, and by 6.20am they’ve arrived at a Papakura service station to refuel. But they’re already late. Hauling the 460 hives onto pallets, strapping them down, stacking them as tall and tight as shipping containers—it all took longer than they wanted.
Leef’s ute tray is dotted with chips of wax, and as he pumps fuel he leans against the cab, ankles crossed, boots unlaced for the long journey. He stifles a yawn and brushes away humming bees. Grubb collects fresh pastries for the drivers. She was an architect once upon a time, but fell in love with bees during a beekeeping course, and bonded with Leef over their mutual love of the insects.
Today, they have 2000 hives. The company they co-founded, Mana Kai Honey, is fully Māori-owned, with Grubb as managing director, Leef as head beekeeper. It’s based in a former fish factory in Awanui that has since been painted black and bright yellow.
Today, they’re taking the first of their hives down the line, to the high-altitude mānuka country of the North Island’s Central Plateau, where they’ll be helicoptered into the ranges.
“It’s a really massive investment and it’s all a risk,” says Leef. “This year up north and last year, we produced nothing. It’s been consistently bad across the board.”
This summer, anticipation is running high for a good haul of honey. At more than a kilometre above sea level, the block they’re flying into blooms late, with its mānuka nectar flowing deeper into the summer than in Northland. Right now, the helicopter pilots told them, there’s only 20 per cent flower, so Mana Kai is coming in at a good time. That’s if they can get there before it gets too hot.
It’s already an hour after sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, and the dawn mist is just beginning to burn off the paddocks across State Highway 1. If the air temperature continues to rise, the helicopters won’t be able to carry their beehive cargo, and if the bees are kept in their hives for too long, they’ll begin to overheat, then die. A dying hive is a terrible thing: when bees are very distressed, they can make a high-pitched buzzing sound, like a collective scream.
Larger companies can afford to use refrigerated trucks to bring bees south, but others, such as Mana Kai, rely on the night. It’s another four hours to their destination, near Taupō—and then the hives will be waiting in the sun as they’re unloaded and attached to helicopters.
When they land, deep in the central North Island ranges, the only source of nectar for miles around will be hillsides covered in silvery, blooming mānuka. Only then can the hives be unlocked and the bees set free. There’s no time to lose.
Mānuka honey has been on a steady rise for at least a decade now, and recently, the industry has really skyrocketed. But like any form of farming, mānuka is volatile. Last summer, cold, windy and wet weather affected flowering, nectar flow and bee activity. Apiculture New Zealand said the honey crop was the worst in 10 years, with many beekeepers struggling to break even.
Up until 1990, though, you had to give mānuka honey away.
A stubborn, dark-amber honey with an astringent twang that echoes its source, mānuka honey is thixotropic: solid when undisturbed, fluid once stirred. In the early days, it was difficult just to coax it from the comb. Before modern comb-prickers and centrifugal extraction, beekeepers had to crush the comb and strain it through cheesecloth, picking out dead bees and pollen first.
Even if they bothered, the market for it wasn’t great. People preferred light, mellow clover honey, and mānuka has a strong taste, described in a New Zealand sensory-profile publication as “a mineral, slightly bitter and barley sugar flavour”, with a fragrance of catmint and heather.
Beekeepers avoided mānuka for most of last century, except to use in blends and as bee food. One publication advised beekeepers simply scrape it out and feed it to the pigs. The mānuka tree was the unloved backdrop to New Zealand, branches sacrificed for firewood, gates and fences, the first tree to arrive when the native bush was cleared, the first to go when the mature bush returned.
In 1913, the Waimate Daily Advertiser recommended nourishing bees during the hungry season by removing the mānuka crop before clover was expected, and putting it back over the cold months to keep the bees alive. In the 1930s, Nelson’s Cawthron Institute experimented with diluting mānuka honey, filtering it, vacuum-evaporating it and treating it with charcoal to remove its colour and flavour.
Filtration and dilution? Charcoal and evaporation? What would those clover-chasing beekeepers think today if they saw a perfectly good pasture near Awanui freshly planted with worthless scrub—new, young mānuka trees? Or the Warkworth Honey Centre selling a 250-gram jar of an ‘inferior’ honey, mānuka, for $92.95—more than $3 a teaspoon? Or bleary-eyed beekeepers transporting thousands of hives around the country every summer, on the hunt for one of the most valuable and powerful foodstuffs on Earth?
We drive towards Taupō, the sun rising, rising. Shane Leef, a cousin of Bobby’s dad, has the veil of his bee suit thrown back behind him. He’s dressed ready to leap into action should there be an accident — the hives tipping over, filling the air with angry bees.
He winds down the window and waves away the bees crawling over the inside of the cab.
“That’s how I keep myself amused—by turning the radio up, opening the window, fighting the bees,” he says.
They’re as dense as motes of dust, but he’s not worried about being stung; his placid, genial demeanour is perfect for beekeeping. Move calmly and they won’t bother you. And besides, their low, throaty murmur means life.
“Sometimes when you turn the truck off you think it’s idling, but it’s the bees flapping their wings,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, when the humming stops, they’re dead.”
Mana Kai is a family affair—Shane’s youngest son, Jared, also works for Bobby—though they also employ other locals, two beekeepers from the Philippines, and a young man from Japan, the son of a beekeeping acquaintance gaining experience in New Zealand. While Sera Grubb is descended from Te Aupouri, Ngāti Kuri, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Maru, and Ngāti Paoa, the Leefs are Te Rarawa—and, Shane adds with a grin, you could argue that Leefs and bees go together all the way back to England.
“Our family name is English: Leef. You can’t get any more English than that,” he says. “And if you go inside the marae and have a look on the Leef coat of arms, there are three bees there. I said to Bobby, ‘We’ve been in the business since the 1700s, mate’.”
Shane also works as a fishery officer, and he has a farm, running cattle: “But I like the bees, I like working with them.”
He’s watched mānuka become “really competitive” in the past few years, the northern skies filling with unfamiliar helicopters transporting hives. Competition for mānuka land has also heated up, and agreements with landowners are ever-shifting.
“What’s been happening is that you might say, ‘I’ll give you 50 bucks a hive’. And then the next guy will come in and say, ‘I’ll give you $75’, and then the big guys will go, ‘I’ll give you $120’. What’s the landowner
“It’s a real touch-and-go game. There’s a lot of expense in it. Too much rain, too cold, not enough sun during the day and there’s flowering but no nectar. This year is worse than last year in the north and will weed out the little guys. We’re lucky we can come south, we can afford to chase the flower.”
“This is what we’ve come for,” says Grubb. “Look at that mānuka.”
The hills folding back into bluish haze look dusted with snow. Beyond the sheer edge of this river terrace lies layers of rolling, volcano-carved land.
It’s close to 11am, and the rest of the trucks wheeze up to the skid site, humming with bees clustered around the hives, trying to crawl back inside.
We suit up, and Arapiu Seymour, of Tūwharetoa and Raukawa and chairman of the Owhaoko A Trust, sprays water on the hives, saying a karakia.
Then, veils and gloves on, the beekeepers begin to drive forklifts back and forth, unloading the hives and delivering the pallets to the edge of the skid site, where they secure them with strops. The hives are bright against the dull green bush, each plastic base imprinted with different symbols, to help the bees recognise their home.
The trust has nearly 2000 hectares of mānuka, and every summer, about 1200 hives are flown in to reap the nectar from the dense scrub. Few other plants are flowering at this time, and the small, star-shaped white-and-pink flowers produce a small amount of nectar.
Owhaoko’s partnership with Mana Kai is in its third year, and the honey company gives the trust a share of the honey, which it can also sell. Seymour says the extra money will allow them to create employment and income for whānau owners; so far it has built a new eco-tourism cabin, Te Whare Ruruhau.
“For the first time this land can generate some income, to be socially applied for its owners,” says Seymour.
Leef and two other beekeepers climb aboard a helicopter and watch the ground dropping away, dragging a trailing windsock to stop the hives from spinning.
Once the bees are safely down, the beekeepers work fast in the hot sun, placing the hives, flicking the little red latch on the bottom, opening them up, and setting the bees free to forage at last, nearly 700 kilometres from home.
It is cosy inside a bee suit. The world narrows. You have to move a little slower; your peripheral vision is obscured by the sides of the veil, and you don’t want to stress or swat at the bees, anyway. They don’t like agitation. The mesh of the hood is set well away from your head, dropped forward to keep the bees away from your face, meaning your gaze is permanently guided downward, into the hive.
Not everyone can be a successful beekeeper. It requires incisive observational skills and a sixth sense about bee health and how the hives are operating, and it can obsess people. Perhaps it’s because we recognise something of ourselves in miniature. To watch a beehive is to observe a city of 50,000 residents, a fast-moving portrait of time and life collapsed: birth, growth, work, breeding, death.
A sophisticated, social insect, honey bees have much to teach us. They act as a single organism, each bee doing its job, like a single cell in a human body—each worker producing barely a gram of honey in her 45-day adult lifespan. They show us cooperation, adaptation, complex communication, preparation for disaster; bees protect the colony at all costs. Though cold-blooded, they precisely control the temperature in their hives, air-conditioning them by distributing water droplets throughout the interior, circulating air by fanning their wings or hanging out on the outside, ‘bearding’, to remove extra body heat. In winter, worker bees huddle around the queen, shivering to keep the middle of the hive at the correct temperature. They rotate from the middle to the outside, so no bee gets too cold. The lower the temperature, the closer they huddle.
Bees make honey to feed their young, and to store over winter, and humans steal it. But it’s a symbiotic relationship now. Since varroa arrived at the turn of the millennium, beekeepers must insert varroa mite strips into their hives to keep bees alive, and feral honeybee populations have vanished. With them has gone much of the work they did to pollinate crops and pastures, which now has to be done by managed hives.
These days, bees are routinely transported—to pollinate orchards, to find new honey crops, to chase mānuka down the line. But when hives are stacked together in the sun, the exits blocked in order to transport them, the colony can start to suffocate.
It’s now 1pm on the skid site and the shadows are tight around the trucks. There’s not a metre of shade to be found on the baked clay, nor water. The three helicopters whip up a storm of grit every time they hover above. Brows and backs are riven with sweat, our tongues thick with heat and dust.
After a couple hours of frantic work, Grubb is happier with how things are going, but she’s still worrying about the hives stacked in the sun. The beekeepers are ahead of the helicopters now, with hives stropped up and ready to attach to the lines. The helicopters will make the journey 40 times between them, with the farthest site a 20-minute flight away. At about $2000 an hour, this isn’t a cheap operation. Nor is hiring the trucks, paying wages, accommodation, fuel and food. All of this, Mana Kai needs to make back from the mānuka.
With just a few loads left to go, Grubb begins to hear a high-pitched chirruping from the hives, like from a bird. It gets louder, fuller, a sound almost human. Locked inside the hive, the bees are screaming. Within, they’re frantically flapping to try to keep cool.
“These need to go next!” she shouts. “They’re getting hot!” The helicopter thuds above the cliff edge, the boys attach the lines, and then the hives are gone, turning gently as they sail through the air.
This is just the first trip. In another couple of days, Grubb and Leef will do this again—and again, until most of their hives are tucked into the distant hills. And in seven weeks, the process will repeat itself in reverse.
They’ll be hoping for heavy hives on the return trip. A hive can hold up to 40 kilograms of honey in an excellent year, but in other years return only half or a quarter full. Beekeepers don’t see the often-quoted retail prices of $1000 a kilogram for medical-grade mānuka honey; bulk prices offered to beekeepers are more likely to be about $30 a kilogram, with medical-grade mānuka attracting a couple of dollars more.
It can be lucrative, but the gold rush has led to problems for everyone in the industry.
“Mānuka? Oh, you don’t want to go there,” one beekeeper says when I call.
“When the price of a product goes up 700 per cent it does terrible things to a person’s ethical sense.”
The boom has meant that where once lay one hive per hectare of mānuka—generally agreed as a good ratio—there can now be 15. With more bees picking up all available pollen and nectar in a neighbourhood, it means bees increasingly need to be fed supplements and sugar syrup. And with a finite amount of mānuka nectar available to feed the clamouring market, it means less mānuka for every beekeeper.
“It’s like putting 100 cows in a one-acre paddock,” says Walter Leef, Bobby’s father, who has his own hives and helps with his son’s business. “Half a day and it’s over.”
Another hot day in December. This time, it’s the hills of the Wairarapa that are dry and brown, baking yellow under a pale-blue sky. Alan Simmonds has just been out to look at the mānuka flowers.
“How’s it going?” asks his son-in-law, Stu Ferguson. It’s already looking iffy this year for the family business, Hunter Reilly Honey, which Ferguson runs with his wife, Jan, Simmonds’ daughter.
In November, the trees were on the cusp of flowering, but they never did. Ferguson and Simmonds have been waiting for a wash of blossom that now seems unlikely.
“It looked like it was all going to go—and then it just went pfffft,” says Ferguson. “That’s what’s happened everywhere. It happened at Featherston, it’s happened out there, it’s happened at the coast. All the young stuff sitting there and you’re like, it’s going, it’s going—and then it’s gone. Poof.”
The Fergusons and Simmondses are part of five generations of beekeepers, the latest being Jan and Stu’s nephews, who have just started. Simmonds’ grandfather used to make honey mead and sell it around pubs in England, and when he sailed to New Zealand in the middle of the 19th century, he brought bees with him.
In the kitchen of Simmonds’ farmhouse, which has a lino floor so retro that it’s fashionable again, he drops the honey pot in the middle of the bench and a slice of toast on my plate, then spreads honey on his bread. It’s their own, of course. The heat has collapsed the block of butter in its foil, and the honey is thick, sweet, and golden.
Simmonds is a quiet, wiry man with an oblique smile. His father, who kept bees during World War II to make a living for his family, had a honey shed just down the road from where we’re sitting. Simmonds got his first hives when he was about 13. He’s been beekeeping for 60 years now, and remembers when his family were the only commercial beekeepers in the lower Wairarapa. The seasons were like clockwork; drought in October, long, hot summer.
“Bees like real hot weather,” says Simmonds. “No wind. Stinking hot days. When farmers are yelling they want water or rain, beekeepers are smiling. That’s how it works. When farmers are happy, we’ve got the long faces.”
As with farming, you just can’t depend on the weather. Last season, the summer of 2016-17, was the worst in 10 years.
“I was gutted,” says Ferguson. “It was cold and wet, no honey came. Normally we’d get about 60 tonnes. We got 14. You expect it—if you’ve been in it long enough you should have known, and you can get lots of bad years in a row. This year is almost starting to look like it’s low. Not a shocker, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be anywhere near as good as we thought.”
It’s a little strange for Simmonds to be chasing mānuka. Years ago, when all anyone wanted was light, almost white clover, he sold his dark, astringent mānuka to the baking company Adams Bruce—the forerunner of Ernest Adams and progenitor of Queen Anne Chocolates—to mix into cakes.
“There was that much mānuka around, all the hills everywhere in those days, that you struggled to get straight clover,” he says. “It all got contaminated with mānuka.”
Though mānuka first went crazy about 10 years ago, it was all hush-hush for a while. Simmonds heard “a whisper” that mānuka honey was worth a lot of money, and went to every meeting he could, trying to find out about it. He sent honey samples away, and the results indicated they were a respectable ‘12 non-peroxide’. But the people he was selling the honey to wouldn’t tell him what that meant.
“They knew they would have to pay about four times as much for it,” he says.
Eventually, of course, the potential of mānuka became more widely known. Ferguson suspects the mānuka boom will be followed by “a bit of a nosedive” before it stabilises.
“Everyone’s jumping in,” says Simmonds. “But half of these young beekeepers are going to get put out. They haven’t been around long enough to ride out the vagaries of it. Beekeeping is only as good as the fella doing the hives. If you have dumb jokers doing the hives, well, you won’t get a crop.”
In Simmonds’ heyday, a gentlemen’s agreement ensured hives were spaced well apart, but that’s changed now. Someone can plant mānuka on a property and be faced with hives lined up against the boundary. Hives are being stolen and destroyed. Simmonds lost 40 hives from the corner of his property—straight onto a truck and gone.
Apiculture New Zealand chief executive Karin Kos had been in the job two weeks when she got her first phone call about hive theft, in early 2016.
“We are certainly seeing beehive thefts increase,” she says. “But what people have to understand is five years ago, there were 400,000 hives and now we’re talking more than 800,000, and it’s continuing to grow.”
Senior Sergeant Alasdair Macmillan, based in Wellington, manages the police’s honey portfolio. He had to work hard at first to get people to take honey crime seriously.
“I was getting people saying, ‘What are you wasting your time on that for?’ I said, ‘Do you know the loss to the country? It’s in the millions.’ If we get rogue beekeepers or infestations in honey which is illegally obtained, not checked, and it goes offshore, imagine the damage to our biosecurity reputation. That’s worth billions of dollars in exports.
“People think bees are just things that buzz around the garden and grab pollen. They don’t realise what it means when you say 250 grams of mānuka honey is selling for up to $750 in a health shop in China. When you’re getting 40 kilograms of pure mānuka honey per hive, it’s really attractive to crime.”
In the eight months between May and December 2017, there were 400 honey-related offences, involving everything from hive theft to 116 incidents of shoplifting honey products from health shops. (By contrast, in the 12 months to June 2016, there were only 84 honey crimes.)
The beekeepers Macmillan talks to who have lost hives are “devastated, frustrated, angry”, he says. Links to organised crime have been identified, with hotspots in the central North Island and Northland.
“It’s a real loss for beekeepers,” says Kos. “It’s their livestock.”
Apiculture New Zealand and the police are now working on a honey-identification system within the hive. Since hives are already registered, people transporting them can be stopped and checked by police officers.
The effects of theft can last years. Daykel Apiaries at Paranui, near Kaitaia, built a business raising queens and breeding honeybees; they featured in the very first issue of New Zealand Geographic. A year ago, owners David Yanke and Rachel Kearney lost more than 400 hives to suspected poisoning, many others were stolen, and the gates to their property were rammed.
“We had a hell of a time,” says Kearney. “We had three separate hive thefts, and that was hard to deal with, because it cut our business in half, basically. Now, we’re just back to producing queens.”
They also aim to make a little mānuka honey, but the competition for nectar has surged.
“There are so many beekeepers and there’s a huge bubble in the industry—it’s just gone insane, it’s not sustainable the way it is,” says Kearney. “Anyone chasing mānuka is potentially making very big money.”
Hence the enormous effort involved in searching for virgin land to put the hives on. Mānuka is one of bees’ least preferred nectar sources—there’s not much to extract, so they’ll take the easiest options first—and they can fly an astounding number of kilometres to get it. It’s like having the choice between a grocery store and a McDonald’s when you’re starving. You’ll take the easier option.
For landowners, it means that planting mānuka is suddenly a sensible option. Poronui Lodge in the Central Plateau is putting mānuka where it used to have forestry, and the trees should be providing good floral density in about five years.
“It’s relatively small but it’s replacing what was previously pine forest,” says Steve Smith, chief executive of Westervelt, which owns Poronui. “We’ve got about 50 hectares planted now and will be moving to do more rapidly.”
Mānuka planting is better for catchment and ecosystem management than forestry, and also means carbon credits.
“For my mind, the mānuka-type plantation should be at its most attractive in marginal land areas—that’s where we want it to be successful and that provides a real solution to people. It’s a better land use than trying to push animals onto country that really struggles to take it, catchments that struggle with nutrient issues—as opposed to growing mānuka on coastal plains that can grow maize.”
“Are you starting or finishing this time?” the bakery worker asks Bobby Leef. This time, they’re starting. It’s 5.10am, and Leef was up at 3.45am, knocking on his workers’ doors. Some of them live with the Mana Kai owners; otherwise, Leef says, he can’t get them all out of bed and to work on time.
“People always ask me, ‘Why is mānuka so expensive?’ I say, ‘Come and spend the day with me’.”
Leef deposits coffee in front of us. The young beekeepers pick up filled rolls and slices. They prefer energy drinks, several apiece. Leef has chosen all his workers knowing they will be gentle with the stock—he won’t accept people being rough on the hives.
“Bees hate being banged around. Some guys damage the bees when they’re working with them—slam the boxes down, trap the bees in. You don’t need to do that. The bees respond to respect and care.”
We’re back in Awanui to round up another load of hives to send south, down the line. Leef was born and raised in the small town of Panguru, and many of Mana Kai’s hives are placed throughout the Hokianga with his whānau—not far from where honeybees were first introduced to New Zealand. Only the best and strongest will go on the back of the truck—he wants the hives bursting with healthy bees when he takes off the lids.
The boom has been good for Northland, he says. It’s turned land that was once considered useless scrub into income, jobs, potential. A future. But the promise of easy money has also brought in people without the requisite skills, knowledge and temperament.
“I think a lot of people’s focus in the industry is wrong—just on the money. A lot of the young guys coming in have a focus on money and not bees. They’ll wonder why they’re not producing and their bees aren’t happy.
“The beekeeping industry is like crabs in a bucket. People pulling each other down and ripping each other off.”
Careless beekeepers can spread diseases such as American foulbrood (AFB), which is distributed by spores. That puts the whole industry is in trouble, particularly because its spores can last for more than 40 years.
The recipe for curing AFB is simple and horrific. You wrap up your hive with its bees, dump it in a hole, douse it in petrol, and set it alight. But if you’re a beekeeper after the money, Leef says, you’re not going to burn your hive. You’ll try to extract as much honey as possible first—thus risking the spread of the disease.
With the trucks fully loaded and the sun now well up, it’s time to drive another hour across the spire of the North Island, to a site past Awanui, to drop the hives off ready for Taupō. You really have to love bees to do this, Leef says, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
“We don’t get up to work to make money. We get up to make honey. And if it doesn’t go well we’ll do it again next year. If we haven’t gone broke.”
It’ll be another few hours before Leef and the workers get any lunch. Later, they’ll be off again down the line, refuelling in Papakura, unloading in Taupō, a swim and a night in the campground before driving home again. On the way, they’ll pass another apiary company’s truck, skittled off the side of the road. Everyone was okay, but it gave them a fright. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, heading south to chase the bloom.
By late January, the mānuka harvest is over. After weeks of worry—racing time, weather and flower—the results are in. Stu and Jan Ferguson in the Wairarapa have collected about 40 tonnes of honey—just below average for Hunter Reilly Honey. The flow came on strong and fast and lasted about 10 days, says Stu Ferguson. If you were in the right place at the right time, he adds, you would have done very well.
Mana Kai pulled its hives out in early February. But the mānuka bloom was shorter than they expected, the nectar not flowing for as long as they were hoping.
“I’m really tired. I’m exhausted,” says Grubb. She’s driving back from the Central Plateau after yet another trip. “Beekeeping’s like gambling. You get that buzz, and if you don’t win this time you want to try again. You think, ‘Could we have done something different? Could we have done better?’ And if you do win, you want to go back for more. It’s like an addiction.”
After the enormous, expensive effort of monitoring the weather, the blossom, trucking the hives, flying them in and then bringing them back, Leef and Grubb still have to wait to learn how well their bees did. As this issue went to print, extraction and filtering and testing had only just begun.
Other farmers can watch their crops growing, their apples swelling, their livestock putting on flesh or wool. But for beekeepers, everything is hidden in miniature until the very end of the season, when they open a hive, pull out a frame, and see the creamy blush of wax, sealing away each dark, secret cell of honey.