A veteran Hawke's Bay beekeeper says many people trying to get on board the manuka honey gold rush are actually causing the local honey bee population to starve.

Third generation apiarist John Berry , who has more than 50 years' experience working with bees, says the region's population is now the largest it's ever been.

Overstocking of hives was causing big problems, he said.

John Berry says manuka honey's explosion is turning bee survival into the hunger games. Photo /Duncan Brown
John Berry says manuka honey's explosion is turning bee survival into the hunger games. Photo /Duncan Brown

"It's a simple analogy, imagine that you're running a farm of 500 cows, then another farmer comes along and says he can run 2000 cows on the farm.


"It's just plain stupid. But that's what happens with the bees."

The former Arataki Honey worker and Apiculture New Zealand president said huge areas of the region were being taken over by beekeepers only interested in manuka production.

Hundreds of hives were being placed next to each other on neighbouring properties, resulting in bees desperately scrabbling for food between them.

While the manuka industry is now worth millions of dollars annually, Berry said pollination of clover was worth far more to the economy than manuka honey would ever be.

"Clover is based on pasture, farmers put phosphate on which fixes the nitrogen and makes the rye grass grow, which makes the stock fat.

"If every bee in the country died tomorrow, you'd still have clover for a few years, but eventually you'd run out and the pastures would revert to rough native grasses."

Berry said New Zealand honey exports in 2017 made around $300m.

"Value generated by pollination estimated at over $5 billion with clover on dairy farms alone estimated at $1.5 billion."


Before the manuka industry took off, beekeepers would often feed manuka honey to feed the bees.

"Nobody wanted it back the day, but then the price went up and people started paying for sites."

"Ten years ago Hawke's Bay was already pretty much fully stocked with bees.

"I doubt anyone knows exactly how many extra hives there are, but I suspect it's around four times the number of hives and there are no more flowers than there were," he said.

Manuka Farming New Zealand, plantation and apiary performance manager Maggie Olsen said beekeepers were now finding there was a lot more competition with hives and people were not respecting the traditional rules that they used to follow.

"There's about a million hives in New Zealand now but in saying that there's a lot of boundary riding," she said.

"Bees would usually be spaced about 3km apart, now people will put hives anywhere that has space for them."

The Ministry for Primary Industries has contracted Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research to annually survey New Zealand's managed honey bee colonies since 2015.

Hawke's Bay falls under "Middle North Island" with 2017 survey results showed that biggest bee losses were due to "Queen problems" (22. 4 per cent) the second was suspected Varroa, a mite that attacks honey bees (22.4 per cent) and the third biggest loss was "suspected starvation" (18.4 per cent).