With the arrival of Spring comes pollination season and the start of many months of hard graft ahead for honey producers like Kintail Honey in Takapau.

After last season's extraordinarily low national honey crop - which has helped sustain the sky-high prices for honey on supermarket shelves - the 70-year-old company is looking forward to better weather this year.

Due in part to the conditions last spring and over summer, the company's long-term average of extracting 45kg of honey per hive reduced substantially last season.

But Kintail's Damien Ward, 38, who along with brother Jason, 42, runs the predominantly clover honey-producing business alongside their father James, said it was pointing to an improved spring this year.

Advertisement

"It's been a colder winter which is probably a good thing, as it sets us up for a better spring than we've had in the past couple of years."

A free-for-all But another reason for the lower than usual honey crop last year, according to Jason, is the number of new operators who had entered the industry in recent years, attracted by the high prices for honey, and manuka in particular.

He said the inexperienced new operators were failing to honour long-held agreements and were paying scant regard to the amount of food available for the bees when deciding on where to put their hives and operations.

"Historically it's always been a gentleman's agreement that 'this is your area and I won't come into it', but now it's just a free-for-all," Jason says. "We don't overstock [areas] but now there are just bees everywhere but there's only so much nectar and pollen available to sustain them," said Jason.

The other serious concern the brothers have from the influx of new operators is the threat of disease, the most feared of which is American Foulbrood (AFB).

In New Zealand, there are only three nationwide pest management strategies in place - one for tuberculous in cattle, one for the vine-killing Psa in kiwifruit, and one for AFB.

"For us personally, we've seen our business affected by AFB," said Jason. "Whereas in the past we haven't had any cases for many years, we have had reported cases through all four of our businesses. And that's down to just the number of neighbouring beekeepers around and a lack of skill and education, because a bee can fly 5-7km to forage for food so they will fly to another hive to steal some honey and that's how the disease spreads, especially if the other hives are weak."

Minimum manuka definition required The only way to treat affected hives was by burning and completely destroying them, says Jason.

"It comes down to an honesty system. If you get [AFB] you've got to report it and then have to destroy it [the hive] - that's the law. But sometimes, people aren't doing that. So we need to ensure there's better compliance and better enforcement, and that's where MPI [The Ministry for Primary Industries] has to do their part. It is also law that all hives are registered, which some new people also seem to be ignoring."

In Takapau alone, Kintail Honey will employ 17 beekeepers during the upcoming season. Photo / Supplied
In Takapau alone, Kintail Honey will employ 17 beekeepers during the upcoming season. Photo / Supplied

The other important part MPI has to play in the industry, says Jason, is delivering on the long-awaited new regulations for manuka honey, which the department says is necessary to protect New Zealand's reputation as a premium exporter of the sought-after product.
For years, the department has been working on establishing a minimum scientific definition of manuka and strengthening export regulations.

Initially, the new standards were due in April but after several delays, are now due for release at the end of August. When they are finally released, Jason hoped they would be robust to stop unscrupulous producers passing off inferior product as manuka.

"What I think has happened is that MPI has gone off on their own a wee bit and haven't spoken enough to industry - and that's where all the knowledge is, in the industry - but I think they've come back to us and that's why they've delayed the standards being released."

With manuka honey retailing for more than $100 per kilogramme, 10 times more expensive than clover honey, the industry has also been plagued by numerous hive thefts in recent years, and Kintail had not been immune.

Despite all this, Jason said the state of the industry represented not only challenges but also opportunities.

"If there's a quick buck in it, everyone wants to jump on board. At the moment it's manuka honey but it remains to be seen how long that will last. So for us, we are just focusing on our core business and making sure we do that well."

"Bloody hard graft" Started in 1947 in Dannevirke by James Ward's dad, Dudley, Kintail's core business has diversified over the years. But it all starts with pollination and Spring, which is basically the start of Kintail's long season, according to Damien.

"It's bloody hard graft. You've gotta work for it. Through those 10 months of year when we are working bees, it's really full on," he says from inside Kintail's 18-month-old, modern two-storey office block, where James Ward's partner, Mary-Anne, and Damien's wife Marsha run the accounting and administrative roles in the third-generation family business.

Kintail Honey has 12,000 hives - more than half based in and around Takapau and Dannevirke - with 2000 hives in Manawatu, 3000 in Wairarapa and around 1,000 hives further north at Te Puke.

During spring, thousands of Kintail's hives are hired out and sent to help pollinate apple crops in CHB and Hawkes Bay orchards, and blueberries grown just south of Flaxmere.

The Te Puke hives will pollinate kiwifruit crops in Tauranga and Bay of Plenty along with additional hives from the three other businesses. The Takapau, Manawatu and Wairarapa hives will also pollinate clover on pastureland over summer for farmers across the lower and central North Island.

"Feel-good factor" In Takapau alone, Kintail Honey will employee 17 beekeepers this coming season. Due to the good work of their bees, the successfully pollinated apple and kiwifruit crops will in turn help create thousands of picking jobs on orchards and in packhouses down the line.

Jason Ward described the flow-on employment as the "feel-good" factor of the business.

"The pollination work we do and the number of orchards we pollinate gives growers the opportunities to employ people. So there's a nice knock-on effect," he said.

Jason said it was also an example of the successful partnership the company had enjoyed with farmers and growers over the decades, built on the strong relationships forged by his father and grandfather.

"We've been here a long time now. We take pride in what we do, we're here to pollinate for farmers and fix their nitrogen [fertiliser bills], and help their production. Generally, it's a partnership," said Jason, who added the company was committed to working with farmers to implement and maintain their health and safety procedures.

The honey from the hives in the field eventually flow back to company's processing and packaging facility at Takapau, where the company has been based since 1978.

It's also where the hard graft continued, said Damien.

"The honey packaging runs all year round, but peak honey extraction season starts from January and normally runs until April, and then we've got our [live export] package bees and then there's beeswax and propolis - another honey by-product used for health benefits."

Increasing demand for the health properties of honey has meant Kintail doubled in size in 10 years, according to the company's new website created by local company Devol. Kintail packs around 800 tonnes of honey a year - mostly clover but also high-value manuka honey. The company supplies all of the honey for the Pams and Value brands for the domestic market, as well as its own Kintail brand.

For the past 28 years it has been exporting live bees to Canada - which can lose 15 per cent of its bees due to harsh winters.

With hives unable to be imported from the United States due to the threat of disease, Kintail, along with Apiflora in Tauranga can fly up to three pallets - each containing 6,370,000 live bees - every week to Canada during April, in chilled cargo holds where the bees are cooled down to 7C or 8C.

The company's annual Air New Zealand freight bill is in excess $500,000 a year and keeps going up, says Jason.