A honeybee gathering nectar from a manuka flower (photo by Brenda Anderson)
While New Zealand is well known for its exports of kiwi fruit and mutton, a similarly well-known agricultural product of Kiwi-land is the honey made from the nectar of the manuka tree – manuka honey. While the manuka tree has long been known by the Maori for its medicinal properties, it wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists at Waikato University in Hamilton discovered manuka honey’s unique properties.
Honey in general has a long history across many cultures for its medicinal and healing abilities, ranging from assisting in the healing of cuts and burns to the soothing of sore throats. But while honey has long been revered for its various uses, it is solely manuka honey that has been noted for having rather extraordinary antibacterial properties. Coinciding with the increasing ineffectiveness of various antibiotics, it’s recently been discovered that thanks to the level of what is called its Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating, the non-peroxide characteristics of manuka honey possesses the ability to eradicate many strains of bacteria, including the antibiotic resistant Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) super bug. Unfortunately, and much how these things generally go, the bread and circuses crowds have giddily done their part in turning manuka honey into yet another faddish superfood, contributing to the bastardization of this unique honey and to what has come to be known as "Manuka Madness."
For starters, people such as singer Katherine Jenkins, actress Scarlett Johansson, model Elizabeth Jagger, and tennis player Novak Djokovik, have publicly proclaimed to use manuka honey – and nothing but manuka honey – to (respectively) soothe the throat, soften facial skin, protect one’s gums from germs (!?), and revitalize oneself between sets. Thanks to all this snake oil salesman-type hype, what has resulted is not only a manuka honey sham, but also a manuka honey scam.
A manuka grove (photo by Margaret Donald
First off, manuka honey now has such a high demand that it often commands a price in excess of 10 to 20 times as much as your average jar of bee puke (which is pretty much what honey is if you want to get technical). With a current export value of about $200 million per year (and an export target of $1.2 billion by 2028), it should come as no surprise that what you’re getting in exchange for your big bucks often isn’t exactly the honey you thought it was.
In October of 2011, Britain’s Food and Environment Research Agency ran some tests on five brands of manuka honey pulled off of store shelves, and only one of them had the properties unique to manuka honey. Oddly enough the math fit nearly perfectly, considering that of the 10,000 tons of honey that had been sold worldwide as manuka that year, 1,800 of those were sold in Britain. What’s the big deal with that? Only the fact that New Zealand was producing no more than 1,700 tons of the stuff per year.
Likewise, and thanks to manuka honey’s medicinal properties (the genuine ones, not the hype tripe), New Zealand honey in general has gained the reputation of being rather super-duper, resulting in things such as the boutique honey shop found in Wellington: Love Honey: The Cuba Street Honey Store (which closed up shop while I was writing this post, although The Honey Store / Love Honey soldiers on). Although Wellington certainly isn’t known for Love Honey, it is known for its parliament building in the shape of a beehive. And with urban beekeeping becoming quite popular nowadays, it should come as no surprise that Love Honey’s managing director got the idea of putting a few beehives atop the Beehive, and so started a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the whole deal.
Transforming honey into money, with Love
I’m no stranger to urban beekeeping myself, as I’m a former member of the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative. With all the hives at the time being on the property of Food Share, "a non-profit agency working to improve access to affordable and healthy food from field to table," half of our harvest went to Food Share to go towards those with less. However, while Love Honey’s managing director’s crowdfunding campaign touched on all the buzzwords (no pun intended) – "local honey," "local flora," "diversity," etc. – for the uninitiated, the ploy behind the "beehives on the Beehive" venture likely wasn’t so much about learning about bees and perhaps allowing those less well-off to enjoy some sweet tasting bee puke, but to get the name Love Honey in the minds of consumers and others. For as stated by online magazine Stuff,
The bees would collect their pollen from pohutukawa trees in Parliament’s grounds and the resulting honey could be given as gifts to visiting dignitaries, Robinson [Love Honey’s managing director] says.
Call me cynical, but to me this seems like a thinly-veiled (again, no pun intended) attempt to weasel Love Honey’s way into the export honey business and shrewdly get Love Honey into various foreign markets. For as I was told by Love Honey’s other co-owner, Love Honey can now be purchased in Singapore, Berlin, Milan, Melbourne, four cities in China, and South-East Asia is currently being worked on.
Furthermore, the fact remains that although Love Honey does sell wildflower honey, what it prides itself in, specializes in, and puts front and centre, is selling boutique, monofloral honeys to foodie-type crowds. I’m generally not a very big fan of monofloral honeys myself, due to the fact they tend to be the product of honeybees living amongst industrial monocultures. (If you don’t know of the problems resulting from honeybees exposed to industrial monocultures, then I recommend a previous post of mine, "Honeybee Collapse is the Result of their Enslavement in Industrial Monocultures.")
In fact, while speaking with the latter Love Honey co-owner about a nearby hedge that I repeatedly saw festooned with hundreds of honeybees, my fascination with honeybees was summarily dismissed with a "I’m not a beekeeper, I’m a honey-hunter" retort. No, he wasn’t implying that he was a honey-hunter of an aboriginal society that gets led to wild beehives by the honeyguide, a bird which feasts on the grubs and wax left behind by the honey-hunters after they take their share. No, what this modern-day, boutique-honey-shop-owning "honey-hunter" is is someone who goes around in search of unique monofloral honeys. As this "honey-hunter" told me, "we once came across a beekeeper who happened to harvest a crop of carrot honey, and it tasted amazing!"
A monoculture of carrots (photo by Zoransimin)
Odd as that may sound, and although I’d never heard of carrot honey before, it didn’t surprise me in the slightest. For as it just so happened, while partaking in a quasi-WWOOF stint south of Christchurch some ten years ago, I was told on authority that the area had what was called "the best climate for growing carrots in the world." As a result, 90% of the world’s carrot seed apparently comes from this small area on New Zealand’s South Island. As if we needed anymore, this is yet another example of industrial agriculture putting all its eggs in one basket, a disaster just waiting to happen.
In other words, no self-respecting mixed polyculture farm, cognizant of ecological practices, would ever have enough of one crop to enable for a sizeable monofloral honey harvest. (There are exceptions though, such as clover honey derived off of pastures.) Similarly, manuka honey, for now, is generally derived from manuka trees in the bush (read: not monocultures). Nonetheless, and thanks to "Manuka Madness," helicopters are now used to prospect sites and drop in hives, land grabs are common, hives mysteriously go missing, and some hives have even been known to mysteriously get poisoned or burned.
Alongside that, "Manuka Madness" actually seems to have become just a stepping stone for what I’ll go ahead and christen as "Manuka Maniacalness." This would be in reference to the abhorrent yet unfortunately expected idea to set up monocultures of manuka trees in the attempt of ensuring that what the bees forage upon is nothing but manuka. Through and through this is nothing short of a shining example of what we call "progress" (the wonky notion that we’re marching onward and upward, and that anything newer is therefore automatically better), because while manuka trees are able to grow in the wild unimpeded, there is no other option but for the monocultured manuka trees to be maintained with doses of pesticides. Doused trees, that is, that the honeybees – which pesticides kill – will have to forage amongst.
Furthermore, when I spent a (fantastic) year WWOOFing in New Zealand ten years ago, and after having been introduced to beekeeping by my mate, I was very interested in learning more about apiculture. I decided then to head up to a beekeeping operation over in Gisborne that took WWOOFers, curious to see how one managed to keep 600+ hives – and organically at that, since that’s the idea behind the WWOOF program. Well, not only were the hives not kept organically (strips of insecticides were placed inside the hives to kill off the varroa mites), and not only was the WWOOFing stint nothing more than a ploy for my WWOOF host to attain cheap labour (I never once ate a meal with the family but was instead given $10 a day to buy my own food to be prepared and eaten in the backyard barracks), but the beekeeper of the apiary with 600+ beehives – whose main cash crop was manuka honey – didn’t seem to have the faintest idea about the world of honeybees.
My first day of work consisted of using a hive tool to scrape off and collect propolis from used bee frames. My mate had already told me a bit about propolis and had even given me some, but I wanted to see what else I could learn about it. I asked my WWOOF host / beekeeper boss what it was used for, to which he answered, “I don’t know, but it’s worth a lot of money!”
Another time, after a friend and fellow WWOOFer made an observation about the bees, he asked me to clarify something for him (he would have asked our WWOOF host himself, but sometimes our beekeeper boss had a hard time understanding my friend’s German accent). “Why are some bees more yellow and others more black?” I could have sworn that my mate had already explained to me why this was, but I just couldn’t remember what I’d been told. I asked our WWOOF host – a beekeeper of twenty years – for my fellow WWOOFer.
“Oh I don’t know,” our WWOOF host replied, scratching his head. “I suppose it’s like Negro bees and Chinese bees.”
Would that be a Negro bee or a Chinese bee? (photo by Tom Houslay)
Suffice to say, with monocultures of manuka and… uhh… Negro bees and Chinese bees, one might hope we’ve reached the height of stupidity in beekeeping (although the Flow Hive™ seems to be making a fair go of challenging that). In fact, and seeing how I don’t mean to give New Zealand honey and beekeepers an outright bad name, it was after all in New Zealand that my mate Dean introduced me to the art of beekeeping, and I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher nor a better friend to bounce beekeeping ideas off of, along with much else.
So with the saying "you learn something new every day," I can only hope then that what might be taken from all this is to avoid spending/wasting one’s money on New Zealand manuka honey. Sure, if you happen to come down with a nasty bout of MRSA you might as well try and find a doctor to slap some of that high UMF-rated bee puke on there. But otherwise, securing honey that originates from local beekeepers, particularly ones that harvest from polycultural fields or wild areas, is bound to be better for all – people, honeybees, and the land alike.
Because really, is there any need to exacerbate the wretchedness of what we call industrial agriculture any further? Do we really need to contribute even more-so to the demise of the honeybee? Can’t singers use just-as-effective regular wildflower honey to soothe their throats? Can’t actresses just use a bit of cream made with regular wildflower honey and bees wax to soften their skin? Can’t models who are concerned about bacteria on their gums be satisfied with giving their teeth a good brushing? And can’t tennis players just go out and buy a lucky rabbit’s foot to rub between sets?
Although it can be tough (and for some unaffordable) to not purchase food – a necessity – grown in monocultures, if we’re at all serious about the perilous condition the honeybee is currently in, then at the very least we ought to be avoiding glorifying and purchasing honey – not a necessity – acquired from the monocultural environments that are leading to the honeybee’s very demise.