The goldrush of honey is losing its shine, according to John Gavin of Gavin's Apiaries at Titoki, west of Whangārei.
"The price of non-mānuka honey has dropped to the floor. It's not going to be viable for some operators,'' he said.
Bulk honey prices of $14 per kg were now more like $4 per kg.
"There are some stories of prices as low as $1.50 per kg. It's hard to find buyers for bush honey at the moment,'' Gavin said.
He and his wife, Cushla, have continued the family business started by his grandfather James John Gavin in 1912 and built up over many years by his parents Terry and Pat Gavin.
Now their son Liam works in the business to make the fourth generation to tend to their 1200 hives.
The Ministry for Primary Industries introduced new definitions of what could be called mānuka honey in December 2017. The definitions were set to protect the premium product, which has grown to be a high-value export for New Zealand.
The definition is made up of a combination of four chemicals from nectar and one DNA marker from mānuka pollen. All honey labelled as mānuka for export must be tested by an MPI-recognised laboratory to ensure it meets the mānuka honey definition.
While securing the special status of mānuka honey, the effect has been to increase the supply of non-mānuka honey, which would previously have been used as mānuka blend honey.
Gavin said the costs of beekeeping, as well as the labour-intensive nature of the business, continued to be a challenge for apiarists and the low honey prices would be a struggle for any businesses that had too much debt.
The National Apiculture New Zealand conference was being held in Rotorua this week, and Gavin predicted the chief topic would be prices.
Others include climate change, pesticide risks, selective breeding, research findings and beekeeping in tough times.
Gavin said the past few years had been highly competitive.
"We had people driving hives into Northland to try and find the early nectar to get the honey flow going and then moving south as the season progressed.
"There was a real goldrush mentality.
"But it's just like feeding cattle, areas can be overstocked with bees and then nobody wins as the bees will starve,'' he said.
Gavin said beekeepers had learned to be secretive about their sites and he valued the longterm relationships with the landowners where he set up hives all over Northland.
"Some sites we've had for 50 years on farmland and bush blocks and in some cases we are still dealing with the original owners. We really appreciate their loyalty.''
The honey season in Northland starts about the beginning of November and lasts until mid to late February.
The rest of the year the bees use their stored honey to keep the hive going.
"Our job is to take the spare honey and leave them with enough for their needs.''
The varroa mite is a constant challenge, with some evidence beginning of resistance to the miticide used to keep the hives healthy.
"Varroa treatments can cost up to $24 per hive. We use organic methods where we can.''
Gavin predicted some hives would be abandoned by struggling enterprises, which would make potential reservoirs for bee diseases.
"Diseases like AFB (American foulbrood) are something we check for every time we look in a hive. It's a highly infectious and notifiable bacterial disease that will quickly weaken and kill a colony in a few weeks.
"It's a constant threat that we are always watching out for,'' he said.
Gavin said the premium Unique Mānuka Factor that all beekeepers were seeking could be difficult to achieve and not all seasons were successful.
"We can't control where the bees go. They will go to the flowers with the highest sugar content so it's all about timing of the flowers to try and target mānuka."
He said, like tasting a fine wine vintage, he had developed a palate for the taste of the honey.
"At conferences we'll have honey tasting sessions and our honey does taste quite different to other regions.
"All our honey gets tested for the UMF, but we also know it by its taste and look,'' he said.
"It's what we always hope for.''