New Zealand's honey industry is in pretty good heart, Apiculture New Zealand CEO Daniel Paul says - as the season begins.

He's the former head of the National Beekeepers' Association, which merged with Federated Farmers' bee industry group to make Apiculture New Zealand (ANZ) on April 1 this year.

ANZ is based in Wellington and it isn't huge. He is the only employee.

But the bee industry in New Zealand is growing. He estimates there are now nearly 700,000 hives - nearly double the number in 2000.


Much of this expansion is by iwi organisations and big companies. Nearly a third of the hives belong to "mega businesses" with more than 3000 hives.

There are also nearly 7000 beekeepers - but still a shortage so that beekeepers are brought in from overseas. Each beekeeper can maintain about 350 hives.

The main reason for the growth is the high price of mānuka honey. A Ministry for Primary Industries report on the 2015 season said medical grade manuka honey was fetching prices as high as $116.50 a kilo.

But honey prices have increased across the board, with no kilo of any honey costing less than $7.

Mānuka honey is especially popular in Asia, and six times as much is being sold to China as three years ago. Most is now sold in branded retail packs, rather than in bulk for repackaging overseas.

The mānuka gold rush has also resulted in beekeepers paying landowners more to put their hives on sites with lots of mānuka, or even just to put them on overwintering sites where hives can easily be moved to mānuka.

Some apiaries have also bought up land with mānuka, which has increased land prices.

In 2015 New Zealand exported 19,710 kilos of honey, which was 35 per cent above the six-year average. The lower North Island had a good season, the ministry report says. It was not so great further north, with bad weather stopping bees getting out before Christmas.

The National-led government would like honey to earn $1.2 billion from export by 2028. At the moment it earns about $300 million - a rapid rise from $98 million in 2010.

But there are some barriers to massive growth.

One is bee health. Mr Paul said New Zealand doesn't have colony collapse and pesticide problems like Europe, but in parts of the North Island 10 to 50 per cent of bees die from various diseases.

The worst pest is the varroa mite, which arrived in the country in 2002. By 2005-6 it was having a serious impact on bee health. The biggest risk is that the mites will develop a resistance to chemicals now used to control them.

"There's lots of work going on in that area, and millions of dollars being spent around the world, including in New Zealand."

Beekeepers don't want bees or honey to come into New Zealand from overseas, in case more bee parasites and diseases come with them.

"We want no imports of bees or honey at all. That's a given," Mr Paul said.

Another barrier to bee industry growth is competition between beekeepers for good apiary sites.

And another is suspicion by overseas buyers that mānuka honey is being adulterated or faked. The Ministry for Primary Industries hopes to have a standard for it in place by 2016, and that could end any doubts.