Mānuka honey's dramatic and turbulent rise to fame.
This piece appears in Volume Five of our magazine.
Outside of their flowering season, a brief period during New Zealand’s spring and summer months, mānuka trees are unspectacular. The trees are low to the ground, with dark, reddish bark and long branches populated with small, almost sharp, arrowhead-shaped leaves. With the ability to grow and thrive in a wide range of soils, weathers, and altitudes, mānuka are often the first to regenerate on cleared land (inside their seed capsules are countless red seeds that catch easily in the wind), providing a nursery for other native species. It’s a hardy plant, one that doesn’t need or seek attention.
Except, during that flowering season. For those six to 12 weeks, the trees’ branches are pinpricked by thousands of white, sometimes pink, five-petalled flowers, upon which—or so New Zealand’s beekeepers hope, pray, and invest in—millions of bees will feed and then turn back to their hives to make some of the world’s trendiest and most expensive honey.
It all began in 1988. Early that year, the findings of a study conducted by Dr. Peter Molan, a British biochemist at the University of Waikato in the North Island, were published in an American journal of apiculture. Molan and his team had found that mānuka honey not only exhibited higher antibacterial characteristics than other honeys, but could also tackle bacteria through extraordinary (and as yet unidentified) means.
“ Molan and his team had found that mānuka honey ... could tackle bacteria through extraordinary (and as yet unidentified) means.”
For centuries, humans have known of and utilized honey’s antibacterial faculty—its ability to zap microbes through its acidity, a hyper-concentration of sugar, and the production of hydrogen peroxide. But what Molan had documented was something new. It was “non-peroxide activity”: a term that remained vague until 2008, when a group of German scientists found that the activity was in fact the work of methygloxal, a chemical compound more commonly known as MGO, and that the MGO was determined by another compound found within the mānuka plant itself: dihydroxyacetone, or DHA.
Even before this part of the mānuka mystery was solved, however, the honey already held a seductive sway. As recounted in Cliff Van Eaton’s Manuka: The Biography of an Extraordinary Honey, in the late ’90s, Dr. Molan, together with a handful of medical professionals worldwide, began reinvigorating the use of honey in medicine through mānuka wound dressings. Though the early dressings were a sticky affair, the results were positive. Individuals who had been suffering from lingering injuries for years reportedly gained relief within a few weeks. One young man, Aaron Phipps—who would later become a paralympian—went on British television to recount how the mānuka honey applied to his amputated limbs and fingers had eased his pain and discomfort as nothing else had. Dr. Molan’s own brand of mānuka dressing—which has long since been approved for medical use by the FDA—was even sent to a clinic for pediatric burn victims in Iraq. It was the best publicity mānuka honey producers could have asked for because, as mānuka was making headlines as a miracle cure, the wellness movement was emerging and seeking precisely this kind of natural healing product.
By the mid 2010s, mānuka could be found in pharmacies, health food stores, and on beauty websites worldwide. Gwyneth Paltrow was, of course, an early adopter. Then it was Scarlett Johansson, who talked about smearing it on her face before the red carpet; then it was Laura Dern, who told the New York Times that she used it to cure her kids’ colds; and, then, unsurprisingly, it was Moon Juice’s Amanda Chantal Bacon, who revealed that she kept it on hand for cuts and burns. Cosmo wrote about it, as did Elle and Women’s Health. The buy-in for the good stuff was upwards of $130 per jar, but who cared? Here was a wholesome, natural product from a wholesome, natural place produced by wholesome, natural people that promised soft skin, healthy digestion, and relief from sores, burns, and wounds. That all but the latter were, and remain, unproven, did not stop the generation of mānuka masks, mānuka elixirs, and myriad other mānuka medleys that made their way through the blogosphere, into social media, and onto our podcasts.
Meanwhile, the national honey business in New Zealand boomed. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of commercial hives in the country skyrocketed from just above 300,000 to more than 920,000. In short order, the field got crowded and cramped and, sometimes, contaminated. Bee health suffered from competition for resources, fraud was rampant, landowners—particularly, Māori landowners in the far north—were exploited for their mānuka resources, and New Zealand beekeepers were forced to navigate a consumer phenomenon that almost no one could have anticipated.
“ As mānuka was making headlines as a miracle cure, the wellness movement was emerging and seeking precisely this kind of natural healing product.”
When I visit Natural New Zealand Honey (NNZH), a beekeeping business 45 minutes outside of Christchurch, the honey season is at its peak. During this time of summer, the company’s 16 permanent employees and seven seasonal workers will pull, on average, 50- to 60-hour work weeks, each laboring in their own way to get the company successfully through another harvest and to supply their domestic honey brand, Foothills, with inventory for the next 12 months. It is a dawn-till-dark kind of operation during which NNZH’s founder and owner, James Malcolm, sleeps in a small shed behind the company’s warehouses for half the week.
“This is a pretty high-risk industry,” Malcolm says, speaking over coffee, a couple of tubs of honey, and a handful of errant bees. All beekeepers get, he explains, is one season: one season to pay off an entire year’s worth of operational costs. “It’s risk and reward,” he says. “It’s like gambling. I hate gambling. But I somehow got into beekeeping.”
Malcolm is exactly the beekeeper you’d like to imagine when buying a tub of mānuka halfway across the world: young, sunned, mustached, with just a sprinkling of white in his dark hair serving as evidence of the real stress of running a beekeeping enterprise. Though only 32, Malcolm has been a commercial beekeeper for 11 years and has been involved in beekeeping for 13. To produce the honey that his company sells, he manages 4,500 hives throughout 300 bee sites by means of relationships and partnerships with 220 landowners—20 of which provide Malcolm’s bees with the nectar of densely packed mānuka groves.
That mānuka honey specifically has become the leading factor in making honey one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing exports—from $97.6 million NZD in 2010 to $348 million in 2018—is an incredible, and often fraught, example of capitalistic irony.
Mānuka, also known as Leptospermum scoparium, or tea tree, is thought to have originated in Australia but is now the most widespread, indigenous shrub species in New Zealand. When European settlers arrived in New Zealand in the early 19th century, however, they saw mānuka as little more than a weed. The standard practice for ranchers and farmers was to clear the tree off their properties in order to make way for plants that their livestock could eat, or that they could sell. Māori culture had, however, long known of and used mānuka for its curative powers, with the tree holding a place in Rongoā Māori, or traditional Māori medicine. Mānuka, the Māori word for the tea tree, served as treatment for urinary tract infections, the common cold, flu-like symptoms, burns, and fevers. It was also used as everything from a sedative to mouthwash.
“It was through the church—who liked bees as much for their honey as for the wax they produced for candles—that the practice of beekeeping spread.”
And yet, before the European settlers arrived, mānuka had never been a source for honey. In fact, no New Zealand plant had. Though New Zealand is home to 28 different species of native bees, none live in colonies or tend honeycombs. European honeybees arrived with the Europeans, and it was through the church—who liked bees as much for their honey as for the wax they produced for candles—that the practice of beekeeping spread, both among settlers and Māori communities. By the mid-1800s, honeybees were buzzing all around New Zealand, and the country’s first commercial beekeepers were beginning to hawk their wares.
Of the first honeys sold, mānuka was far from a fast favorite. Unlike other honeys, mānuka is difficult to extract from its comb and, once extracted, its flavoring is nothing like that of the honeys Europeans were used to. It is strong, a bit bitter, and unapologetic about its acidity. (In the New Zealand Honey Sensory Profiles sheet, it is described as having a fragrance of “catmint and heather, with a mineral, slightly bitter and barley sugar flavor.”) As a result, in the early days of honey production in New Zealand and until recently, mānuka was sold cheap, blended together with other honeys, like the native rawarewa, as a “bush blend,” or else used as feed for the bees in off-seasons.
Today, an eight-ounce jar of mānuka can fetch anywhere between $25 and $1,200, depending on the purity of the product. There are several different grading systems for measuring the “mānukaness” of the honey—with the price increasing exponentially alongside the honey’s MGO content. Of the grading systems, MGO is the most commonly used and is displayed (typically) as a number between 83+ and 1000+; then there is Unique Mānuka Factor, a trademark of the Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association, which is (typically) a number between 5 and 26; but there is also K-Factor and Molan Gold Standard (or MGS) and Bio Active. “That is the disadvantage of the product,” says Malcolm. “There’s so much segregation and so many brands out there and so many people trying to make all these claims about different health benefits and different scales of how they’re measuring the [MGO] in the honey. It’s so misleading for the consumer, and it’s just tarnishing the brand.”
Beekeeping—like any farming industry—can be a brutal business, and when hives are infected with the notorious varroa parasite or affected by American Foulbrood disease, or simply too hot, the carnage can be sobering. But this year, for many honey producers across New Zealand, tensions and emotions are particularly high. There is talk that the mānuka market is on a downward trend. The past few seasons have been tough— with the summer of 2016–2017 clocking in as the worst in ten years—and the industry has been plagued by drama.
Following a peak in mānuka prices during the 2015–2016 season (and perhaps prompted by the abysmal following summer), honey-related offenses skyrocketed, particularly in the north. Hives were ransacked, bees were poisoned, and properties were vandalized. By one account, the number of honey crimes in a six-month period in 2017 numbered 400. Then, in late 2017, the country’s Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI)—a governmental body that oversees various agricultural sectors, including food production—announced that they had finalized an updated definition for mānuka honey and released a range of new export rules in order to prevent blending or adulterating. (Honey is one of the most adulterated foods in the world.) In response, a coalition of beekeepers took the MPI to court, claiming that the definition could cost the industry upwards of $63 million a year.
The conflict extended internationally, as well. In 2014, in a story titled “The Great Manuka Honey Swindle,” the UK magazine The Grocerreported that the majority of exported mānuka-labeled honey lacked the special non-peroxide marker. A couple of years before, it was reported that, though 1,700 tons of mānuka honey were produced per year in ’New Zealand (comprising nearly all of the world’s supply), the global number sold was nearer 10,000 tons.
“By one account, the number of honey crimes in a six-month period in 2017 numbered 400.”
Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, Australian beekeepers had taken to marketing the honey produced from their own native Leptospermum scoparium—once called Jelly Bush—as mānuka. In response, in December of 2017, the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society sent an application to the UK Trade Mark Registry seeking a certification trademark and, in December of 2017, the registry approved the request. (In her decision, the hearing officer stated that, as the word “mānuka” was of Māori origin, mānuka honey could only refer to New Zealand’s Leptospermum scoparium honey exports.) The Australian Mānuka Honey Association challenged the ruling. In 2018, the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society submitted a second application and received a second positive response—this time from the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand, who announced that mānuka honey was officially a proposed certification mark.
The decisions were not only a commercial win for New Zealand beekeepers, but a cultural one as well. “It really is about the name of mānuka. The honey, we’ve known it as mānuka for forever and a day,” Eugene Hunia, co-owner of Whenua Honey, tells me over the phone, before adding: “The name itself is endemic to New Zealand, and that’s what they’re trying to protect.” Hunia and his wife, Laney, own Whenua (which means “of the land” in Māori), whose hives are spread across the picturesque East Cape of the North Island.
Whenua Honey is part of a larger movement of Māori-owned honey producers that are working both to establish more transparent relationships with Māori landowners in the north, and to bring jobs and expertise into those same regions. “I think landowners are more aware now of what the honey’s worth,” says Laney, “but for many, many years—and my grandfather was one of these people—[landowners] had hives on their land and they were given a jar of honey or a couple jars of honey every time the beekeeper came and harvested.”
Whenua operates as a collective, with established profit-sharing contracts and knowledge exchange, and one of their objectives is, Laney explains, “how can we give back to local farmers so that, if they wanted to, they could be beekeepers themselves.” She adds: "It’s just that old model of, how can we help one another here: to strengthen our relationship, and our relationship to the land, and our relationship to our whanau [family].”
While the result of this year’s harvest is still undetermined, the tenuousness of the market is felt throughout the industry. Up north, boom-time beekeepers have gone bust, abandoning their hives; even the honey giant Comvita has recently, due to cost, been forced to close down one of their major operational centers.
“Up north, boom-time beekeepers have gone bust, abandoning their hives.”
Despite current uncertainties, Dr. Peter Dearden, who has spent 18 years researching honeybees and leads the Future Bees Programme and Genomics Aotearoa, both funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, thinks that mānuka can serve as an example of how to design the success of a high-value, high-quality product. “The story of mānuka really comes about through investment in science,” he explains, “and I think that is what I would like to see the industry and/or the government doing.”
But Dearden, like many others I spoke to, sees the need to adapt: as recent years have shown, mānuka’s future is as unpredictable as mānuka’s past. “I guarantee there are other monofloral honeys from New Zealand flowers that will produce really interesting chemicals,” he says. “However, it takes a long time to turn that information into sellable product or something that’s actually useful. Still, I think it’s absolutely vital that we do that.”
In a small room off of one of NNZH’s storage sheds, honey boxes sit between 89.8 and 96.8 degrees, warming and waiting for their turn to be extracted. Malcolm sticks his finger into the fresh, warm comb and tastes a kāmahi honey. I follow suit. In its warmth, the honey is semi-transparent and pale, the color of watered-down pancake batter or fresh cream, and silky sweet. Next, we take a dip out of a mānuka comb. The honey is dark, also semi-transparent at this heat but more complicated than the kāmahi. The satisfaction isn’t as immediate, and the sweetness, not as sweet.