Manuka honey the new gold in them thar hills

By Laurel Stowell

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HONEY MAN: Neil Farrer has been keeping bees in Whanganui for decades.PHOTOS/FILE
HONEY MAN: Neil Farrer has been keeping bees in Whanganui for decades.PHOTOS/FILE

THERE'S a feeding frenzy happening in the Whanganui hinterland as beekeepers take advantage of rapidly rising prices for manuka honey.

Prices range between $25 a kilogram and $75 per kg for the honey which is believed to have anti-bacterial properties and is in high demand overseas.

The boom has brought some friction, with new operators crowding in and squeezing out others, while others are offering dodgy deals to landowners and stealing others' hives.

Land virtually useless for most farming is fetching high prices, and new and more productive varieties of manuka are being planted.

Whanganui Federated Farmers president Brian Doughty says balance is needed.

"There are opportunities there but they need to be looked at and managed properly, otherwise we will have the boom-and-bust thing that we have in agriculture."

Whanganui beekeeper Neil Farrer says there's a gold rush mentality out there.

"People think there's this huge pot of gold with manuka honey - and, yes, it can be very rewarding for good beekeepers. But for poor beekeepers who think they're going to get a pot of gold it can be a disaster."

Most apiarists have hives on other people's land, and pay them in some way. There's no set rate, although a figure of 10 per cent of profit has been mentioned. Some beekeepers offer honey, others $35 per kilo of honey harvested and others $100 to $120 a season for each hive.

Landowners are advised to get any agreement in writing, Mr Farrer said, with a per hive rate the easiest. Other possibilities can cause arguments and he's heard from farmers who haven't got what they expected.

Both he and Mr Doughty have heard of scrub-covered land in remote areas such as Watershed Rd selling for raised prices.

Some was bought by apiarists "so they can't get squeezed out", and some by agents on behalf of apiarists. Places with easy road access are worth most.

Some people are planting new varieties of manuka, bred to flower earlier and longer and produce more and better honey.

"Those that have planted don't want the world to know where they've been doing it," Mr Farrer said.

The bugbear for established beekeepers is new people placing hives too close to theirs.

"They see a well-known beekeeper reasonably close by and stick their hives on the boundary of the next farm. The 50 hives there first would have a good yield but if there are 150 feeding from the same source they can only get the same amount of honey."

Crowding gets more intense in winter, when manuka has run out and beekeepers bring their hives closer to town to look after until the next season.

The number of hives in New Zealand has doubled from 300,000 to 600,000 in the past five years.

"There's enough food for all those bees, but it does require careful management and a bit of honesty," Mr Farrer said.

The worst behaviour is beekeepers stealing the hives of others, and it's hard to police. The 30 hives stolen from Jessica Rees last month are only one example - Mr Farrer knew of another eight thefts.

To him, the prospect of more hill country covered in manuka is good. But it worries Mr Doughty. He said the Government's economic growth plan for this region suggested 100,000ha of manuka honey production. If that land was solely given over to manuka it would mean at least 500,000 fewer sheep. New Zealand's sheep numbers have dropped to 30 million.

Land left to revert to scrub could be harder to clear in future too, needing resource consent.

Mr Doughty would prefer to see multipurpose land use, for meat, wool and honey.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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