Behind the beekeeper's business secrets

By Rosie Walford

There's more to honey than meets the eye and its benefits spread far and wide.

There is more to honey than meets the eye. Photo / Thinkstock
There is more to honey than meets the eye. Photo / Thinkstock

Five years ago, honey was a generic toast-topper. Unless you happened to have a friendly beekeeper nearby, it was pasteurised, mass-produced and, accordingly, plonked on the table in a plastic pot.

How times have changed. Today I'm poring over tasting notes that befit a wine list and choosing between a butter-yellow honey with fudge-like consistency, and a clear chestnut red syrup, sexily packaged.

Single-origin artisan honeys have stormed New Zealand and are fast becoming a fetish of foodies worldwide.

If we stopped to think, it would be obvious that nectar tastes different when it comes from different flowers. The secret of today's delicious menu of honeys is that each is derived from a single flower source, and all are kept raw.

To bring us this range of single-varietal honeys, beekeepers place their hives near to particular flowering plants, countrywide. The bees feast on the floral nectar of that specific flower and sure enough, when you taste thyme honey, the pungent, herbal aroma of those purple flowers comes through.

With white clover, there's a coconut-butterscotch note, evocative of somersaults on my summer lawn.

Jeremy Friend pioneered the nation's fascination with single-varietal honey, bringing the produce of far-flung artisan beekeepers under one brand (while of course keeping their distinctive products apart). On Friend's website you find full tasting notes for 11 varietals, and recommendations for pairings with this or that cheese. Deli stockists chat readily with shoppers about properties of the individual honeys in the range.

Rawness is critical too. Mass-produced honey is normally pasteurised - which means it has been heat-treated to death. Real raw honey has never been heated, and is only lightly filtered. If it's milky, or slightly crystallised at room temperature, it's a sign that the honey still contains the many healthy compounds that make it so beneficial - substances like bee pollen, royal jelly and propolis. Honey doesn't need pasteurising to be safe - it's highly antibacterial on its own.

Taste aside, it's a crime to heat-damage raw honey. Each delicious spoonful has concentrated antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes that contribute to our immune system, our physical and mental health. It's anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, expectorant and more.

Eating raw honey also immunises us to allergies like hay fever. No pharmaceutical companies are throwing research budgets behind honey, so most evidence is anecdotal but the prevailing theory, explained by allergy expert Thomas Ogren, holds that it works like a vaccination. A spoonful of raw honey a day contains a variety of the same pollen spores that cause allergy sufferers such misery when local flowers and grasses are in bloom. So introducing these spores into the body in small amounts via honey accustoms the body to their presence and decreases the chance of an immune system response. Since the concentration of pollen in honey is low - compared to, say, sniffing a flower directly - the production of antibodies doesn't trigger allergic reactions. Instead, the honey-eater doesn't have much reaction at all, especially if the honey is very local.

It's not only individual bodies that benefit from the surge in artisan beekeeping. Honey buffs can enjoy the sense that in buying a single-origin honey, they are supporting small Kiwi producers who, in turn, are working closely with healthy ecosystems around their bees.

Tahi Honey, a relative newcomer to the field, keeps bees as part of a bigger story of birds returning and wetland rejuvenation, "a story that recognises the 'kaitiakitanga' or guardianship of the land". Profits from honey sales subsidise huge indigenous plantings while the bees do their bit to directly enhance the ecosphere.

Indeed, bees and their environments are more intertwined than we might care to think. When bees look for nectar, they climb around the reproductive organs of flowers to get it. Since there's only so much nectar to be found in a flower, bees travel from flower to flower. As they do this, sticky pollen spores are transferred to the pistils of other plants they visit.

This cross-pollination is something we can't do without. Imagine trying to pollinate a kiwifruit orchard by hand! Insect pollination is one of those priceless "ecosystem services" and sustains a third of the world's food supply. It underpins $12.5 billion of New Zealand's annual revenue from horticulture, arable and pastoral exports, if we must put a price on it - all our fruit, nuts and veg.

Protecting bees is fundamental to sustainable life on this planet. Bees need biodiversity - an array of different flowering species to feed from throughout the year - but our increasingly intensive agriculture clears away gorse, barberry and shelterbelts. Pesticides and seed coatings attack the bees' central nervous system and interfere fatally with their navigation systems, causing whole colonies to die.

This is another reason why our single varietals hail from the Southern Alps, or central Otago. Beekeepers venture out to the cleanest places to keep their hives.

Cleverly, the artisan company websites send us to trace our honeypot to these wild, pure origins. Named beekeepers photographed on stunning mountainsides differentiate our honey and take advantage of New Zealand's reputation as a producer of safe, quality food from a clean environment.

The artisan branding movement has lifted New Zealand honey way above commodity status, just as beekeepers were struggling with the arrival of the bee-killing varroa mite and pressure from retailers to drive down the price of raw products.

These brands now capitalise on local honey's intrinsic health properties, and trade on New Zealand's 100 per cent Pure reputation overseas. In so doing, they epitomise this country's potential for green growth. New Zealand Honeyco, the largest single producer of specialty honeys, has won awards including Deloittes' Fast 50 Award for Fastest Growing NZ Company, the Fastest Growing Primary Sector NZ Business and the New Zealand Export Marketing Award 2010.

Friend and Co take their green growth seriously - their business has been organic and carbon neutral from the start. Tahi are partnering with the Government on a pioneer project in biodiversity offsetting. This is a consciously progressive industry, which consumers know is healthy - in every way - to support.

Long may it continue. In America, almond orchards run uninterrupted for 181sq km. In such monoculture, there are no wildflowers, no different species to feed bees through the year, so none are resident. Trucks of hives arrive to do commercial pollination at blossom-time. Bees from all over the country mingle and, if one colony has a virus, they all do. The hives are dosed with antibiotics, the nectars are drawn from many sprayed crops; the bees are dying out.

No wonder we love the distinctive tones and textures of artisan honeys, the stories of individual backcountry hives. Behind these subtle, specific delicacies, the relationship between beekeeper and bees, between bees and their surroundings, is alive and well.

Those relationships elicit a profound sense of awe. To stand in the midst of a roaring swarm is to witness choreography and shared purpose on a massive, magical scale. One bee will gather 22kg of nectar a day. Her sisters will organise cells for that nectar and fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. After 45,000km of more foraging and the beekeeper will fill one jar. Artisan honey is concentrated goodness indeed.

Sweet ideas

* Rent a managed hive in your garden (beezthingz.co.nz).

* Learn to keep your own bees here.

* Scatter wildflower seed mix far and wide. Plant bee-friendly plants from the list on this site.

* Avoid using pesticides.

- NZ Herald

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