Words by Richard Rennie, images by Tania Niwa
In the past decade the gentle art of beekeeping and honey making has been transformed into something of a Wild West experience for many throughout New Zealand. The lure of high manuka honey prices has pushed the number of hives up to unsustainable numbers, putting pressure upon bee populations and the beekeepers tasked with looking after them.
One Taranaki family has however managed to step aside from the whirlwind impact of manuka honey goldrush, keeping firm to their values of sustainable, healthy hives and good relations with landowners.
Sonia and Bryon Bluett and their son Isaac, the owners of Eltham Honey, are seeing the family honey business ease into its third generation of ownership from the family’s base in south Taranaki. In many respects the most remarkable thing about the third-generation succession is how similar the business is to the one Sonia’s parents Trevor and Gay Rowe started back in 1965.
“Dad had always had something of a passion for bees and beekeeping, and it soon came to be that I never knew anything else other than beekeeping as our family business,” says Sonia.
But the family had started off dairying on the block. When compelled to seek more finance for the farm business, Trevor and Gay had been turned down by the Rural Bank and faced the possibility of losing the farm.
“Dad sold the dairy herd in order to keep the land, only to find TSB would lend him the money, just as the cows went out the gate.”
But rather than getting the herd back, Trevor committed to his beekeeping passion, built a honey house on the property and business began with the first honey being sold in the autumn of 1965.
With that came Sonia’s lifelong association with bees and honey, and she still recalls the front of the family home being converted into a honey shop, and her selling honey from the age of 12.
“At the time there were only two large beekeepers in Taranaki, at Mania and Okato. They were all good mates and kept an eye out on each other’s hives and worked with a MAF beekeeping officer, it was quite different to how things are today,” says Sonia.
Ever the capable ex-dairy farmer, Trevor took his farm handyman skills to the beekeeping enterprise, making all their own honey frames, hives and equipment, something that Sonia, Bryon and Isaac continue to do today.
Meeting Bryon, an electrician for Kiwi Dairy Co-op, proved to be timely for both him and Sonia.
Years of shift work, repairing and “band aiding” equipment in the dairy factory was wearing thin for Bryon who was keen to commit not only to Sonia as his wife, but to a business he had some say over and would prove more rewarding.
“Sonia’s Dad had a sore back one year and I took some of the summer holidays to work moving hives for him, and thoroughly enjoyed it. He did say to me that if I wanted to go out with his daughter, I had to do some time on the bees!”
“I enjoyed the work. You may feel physically stuffed at the end of the day, but you also felt you had something to show for your day’s work,” says Bryon.
Bryon had been asked by friend to think about what he wanted and where he wanted life to take him and beekeeping seemed the natural, enjoyable answer to that.
“So, in 1995 we took over the business from Trevor and Gay, knowing just what we were getting into and how the business can have a varying income level year to year, depending upon honey flow,” says Bryon.
To this day they agree it was the best decision they ever made.
“Working for yourself and being in charge of your destiny, despite the lack of guaranteed income, is very worthwhile,” says Bryon.
Taking over from Trevor, Bryon and Sonia worked alongside him for a few years initially running 900 hives and lifting numbers to 1,400. But following Trevor’s sudden death in 2000 and the creeping impact of the varroa mite invasion, they stepped hive numbers down and today run between 700-850.
The products the family specialise in today do not differ too much from when Trevor started the business.
“We have a good niche in the comb honey business, which is very popular with the Japanese export market, and also with tourists when they were coming here. We also do good volumes of bulk honey, and bees’ wax products.”
While manuka honey is the high-profile product for the industry that has drawn more beekeepers than ever to the trade, the Bluett’s have kept it as only a small portion of their business, accounting for less than 20% of their operation.
The bulk of their honey type consists of clover honey, combination pasture honey and a bush honey that includes a combination of kamahi, rewarewa and manuka.
Sonia says her father would be bemused at the profile manuka has gained in recent years, given 25 years ago it was produced to feed bees with, rather than being a harvested honey.
“It is ironic when you see more and more manuka scrub being planted, when I can distinctly recall it being cut out from farms all those years ago.”
Isaac’s move into the family business fulltime is ensuring Eltham Honey has good prospects for the next half century.
A love of timber work had him working as a furniture maker apprentice locally, but increasingly bought a sense he was “just a cog in the machine”.
“I overheard Mum and Dad talking one day about how they were looking at wrapping up the business and interrupted them to ask if I might be able to be part of it, rather than them selling it.”
His only hesitancy came from knowing he was sensitive to bee stings, with one leaving him knocked out cold and in anaphylactic shock when he had been out among the hives with Bryon.
But undergoing a treatment programme at Auckland hospital has meant Isaac has become effectively immunised to stings, and he gets a regular top up injection to maintain the immunity. Sonia and Bryon gave him a 12-month trial in the business just to ensure he was as keen as he thought he was, and his reasons for staying echo those of Bryon’s 30 years earlier.
“I enjoy the physicality of the work and coming home feeling tired for having done something that has very real results at the end of it,” says Isaac.
For Isaac one of the most satisfying aspects of the day’s work is opening up a hive to find a strong healthy golden comb with healthy bees busy within. His love of woodwork is not lost despite his change in career, with his skills invaluable in keeping the family tradition of making their own hives and frames alive.
Isaac’s participation has also prompted the family to undergo a recent re-branding exercise, renaming the business “Eltham Honey” rather than “Eltham Apiaries”.
“Most younger people don’t know what apiaries are, so it was worthwhile redoing our brand and website,” says Sonia.
The family focus strongly on keeping the business in tune with the very seasonal, environmentally dependent nature of honey production and bee health.
As a student of Trevor’s methods, Bryon has kept much of what he learnt from him in play.
“Trevor was a bit unorthodox in his approach, and I have stuck with that. Like Trevor, I believe hives are designed to be part of their environment, and to stay within the environment they are in, rather than being moved around which many beekeepers do now to extend the hive’s production,” says Bryon.
They only move a very small proportion of their hives during the season, with the bee populations tuning into their locale, remaining settled and healthy as a result.
“We hear from farmers about how unhappy they get with some beekeepers moving their hives almost overnight, and how it leaves those bees that were not in the hive at the time stranded and without a home.
“If the SPCA covered bees as they do other stock, they would not be happy with what they would find,” says Bryon.
“If you look after the bees, they will look after us.”
For the Bluett’s this also extends to the landowners who they rely upon for hive locations.
Many kids growing up on farms will recall the tubs of honey ‘paid’ to their family by grateful beekeepers for allowing the hives to co-exist alongside livestock on farms.
The Bluett’s work hard to keep this age-old tradition of respect and reciprocation alive in an environment where beekeepers have become more aggressive in how closely they place hives to other operators, and how frequently they will move those hives to other sites often chasing the golden lure of manuka returns.
As for all beekeepers, the past few seasons have been tough for the Bluett’s with global honey prices very depressed, often down to only $2.50 a kg, when production break even value is nearer $7 a kg.
But Bryon has some cause for optimism with recent non-manuka honey prices starting to lift and interest remains firm from overseas for Eltham’s high quality comb honey.
Meantime there is also some adjustment occurring on the supply side of the honey equation.
New Zealand has become effectively overstocked with bees in the past few years as beekeepers ramp up hive numbers to secure manuka honey. This is despite experts cautioning that overstocking, just as in a pastoral farm, can lead to unhealthy bee populations and overall poor productivity.
The Bluett’s appreciate this more than most, with the last apiculture survey showing their area, the lower North Island, comprises 42% of the North Island’s total hive numbers.
“But we are also seeing a bit of a shakeout in hive numbers, which have dropped by 100,000-150,000 in the past few months from a record high,” Bryon.
Operationally the big disease challenge for the Bluett’s is varroa. Endemic in New Zealand since the early 2000s, it requires constant monitoring to keep mite numbers down from levels that can impinge on hive health. The increase in wasp populations over the years has also added stress onto hives.
Bryon maintains minimising hive stress by less movement helps bees maintain more resilience in dealing with these health challenges.
Fifty-five years ago, when Trevor started selling honey it was in an industry that had a good level of unity and collaboration, something Sonia laments is missing today, and is sorely needed back.
“We have industry bodies, but they are quite separate, and as an industry we need a single body that speaks with a single voice for the industry, particularly on hive health and biosecurity – we are struggling as an industry to be taken seriously by government,” says Bryon.
“I think the only way the government will really take the industry seriously is when we can speak to them with a single voice,” says Bryon.
They are also concerned at the erosion of collaboration and camaraderie between beekeepers as hive numbers have grown, with far greater secrecy and lack of disclosure between even neighbouring beekeepers on where hives are located.
As a company, the Bluett’s remain committed to doing what they have always done so well.
That is producing high quality honey and honey products in a sustainable way that is sensitive not only to the land, but also their clients, and their community where they play a big role with school fundraising and promoting healthy bees in the environment.
Bryon describes bees as the “canary in the coal mine” for all the environment, and the first indicators if something is wrong in the environment.
“Bees lack the ability to break down toxins that build up within them, so their health is a good indicator of the environment we all live in. For us, this is not a 9 to 5 job, it’s a passion, a way of life that requires us to ensure our bees can live as healthily as possible.”
Manuka honey side bar
Brits foil bid to protect Manuka
Like many in the industry, the Bluett’s were dismayed to learn late last year New Zealand’s efforts to protect the term “Manuka” had been rejected by the United Kingdom Trade Commission.
The industry, with government backing, had been seeking to ensure the term would be protected for exclusive use by New Zealand honey makers alone, this would make the term protected in the way “Champagne” is for French bubbly and “Parma” is for ham from Italy.
Apiculture New Zealand CEO Karin Kos says she was dismayed at the commission’s ruling, which supported Australian honey producers claim to also use the title.
She said this was even more so, given the positive prospects the United Kingdom market held for further manuka honey sales. At present the United Kingdom and China are the two biggest export markets for manuka honey.
“There is no argument the Australians were producing a manuka honey, but they used to call it something else, often bush honey. New Zealand has done a lot of marketing and standards work for its manuka honey and has gained good traction. Other countries are now seeing this as a good thing to jump onto,” says Bryon.
He likens the rights to having exclusive use on “Manuka” to that of French Champagne makers who sought successfully to pull back use of the term “Champagne”, well after other countries had started using it.
“Just because someone else somewhere else has chosen to use the term does not mean they should be allowed to continue to use it.”
Representatives of manuka honey manufacturers are hoping to appeal the commission’s decision this year.