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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

A Bounce-Back Honey Season

Following on from a dreadful 2022-23 honey season where the national crop was at least 40 percent lower than any of the previous five years and which had some veteran beekeepers saying was the worst they had seen, apiarists over much of the country are in the midst of harvesting what shapes as a better than usual crop. There is still plenty of hives to check and the hard work of harvesting and extracting many of the honey boxes, but most are confident the end of season volumes will be favourable, if not the price.

“Above average” are the words turned to by many beekeepers canvased for their assessment of the honey season. Coming off the back of a paltry honey season, comparisons to 12 months ago are of little value. So, comparisons to longer-term averages are the go-to, and few think their crops will dip below the average.

It’s been a long and strong mānuka flowering in Taranaki says Egmont Honey chief executive James Annabell who has been finding full boxes and capped frames during hive inspections right across the region in January.

New Zealand’s island make-up means results always vary between regions, but for the most part complimentary amounts of rain and sunshine appear to have provided both the flowers and nectar needed, combined with flying hours for the bees to work in.

Across the lower North Island beekeepers are generally reporting positive honey volumes, and that stretches south-west to Golden Bay at the top of the South Island and even down the West Coast, where the sporadic flowering rata trees have seen some bloom. Conversely, further east in the South Island, especially in the high country, a dry summer looks to have made hives there the least productive in New Zealand.

North Island

In a season where not as many hives have been placed on mānuka sites, due to diminished pricing, a favourable clover/pasture flow has been welcomed, while those who have braved the high-end honey backlog and headed for the hills and mānuka have also been impressed with returns.

Sunny January days, like this on Golden Grove Apiaries hives on the East Cape, have resulted in a better than normal honey crop.

“It’s been good. There’s so much honey it’s not funny,” says Rob Murray of Tai Tokerau Honey, which is based in Northland but migrates hives across the North Island.

“The mānuka season up here in Northland was touch and go, but after that the honey has been pouring in. I was down in Dannevirke not long ago and the hives there had honey pouring in. One of the best seasons I have seen down there. A lot of it probably has to do with there being less hives around.”

A “good average” crop was still achieved in Northland he says.

Kintail Honey has tens of thousands of hives spread across much of the North Island and owner James Ward is bullish, without getting ahead of himself.

“It is shaping up well, but you never count your chickens before they hatch,” Ward says.

For the most part the weather has been good, but it didn’t play ball for bush crops in Taranaki or the Manawatu for Kintail. Over in the Hawke’s Bay, pasture honey returns have been strong though.

Like Ward, Russell Berry and his family’s Arataki Honey business has seen many honey seasons with many hives, and so he is coy about returns.

“Some areas are good, some not so good. There is quite a variation. There is very little rewarewa crop, but we are having a good clover season,” Berry says.

It’s hard to find any beekeepers who can report a rewarewa flowering, limiting bush honey takes in many areas. That includes Bay of Plenty where Jody Mitchell’s Kaimai Range Honey is based.

“We did six tonne last year and we will probably do 20 to 25 tonne this year, but mostly pasture. We were doing a lot more than that in the past,” she says.

In the Waikato moisture in the ground is meaning the pasture honey season is hanging on, but not overly strong.

Rainbow Honey beekeepers at the top of the South Island are finding crops of about two full depth boxes per hive, meaning busy apiaries like this when it came to blowing out the supers in January.

“It is ticking away fine, but you would expect it should be coming in a bit more,” Mitchell says.

Out on the East Cape the Golden Grove Apiaries mānuka hives have filled up as the sun has shone in the new year says owner Jason Stanley.

“It’s definitely much better than last season and shaping up as average to good. Early season, in December the weather was good, but then there was a lot of rain through Christmas and New Year. Since though, January has been good, with only one storm and it didn’t stop the flow,” Stanley says.

Jim McMillan at True Honey Co, known for helicoptering hives in to remote locations to chase high-end mānuka honey, has been pleased with results down the North Island, after Northland didn’t fire for them.

“Production was favourable in our mid-season blocks, through the Tauraruas and over to Raetehi they have done pretty well,” McMillan reports.

“It would be one of our better seasons, certainly in the last few years. It’s looking good with some nice honey and fully-capped frames. It will be interesting to see how it tests out. We have just started extracting, but I am pretty happy really.”

Up at Kinloch Honey, on the Central Plateau, owner Lee Tahere says with so many full mānuka honey drums still in the shed from past seasons, he is not as put off by the “patchy” mānuka flowering in their main blocks this summer, but encouraged by the other varietal flows.

“The weather was a bit up and down, but we got there in the end. A bit of sun in January had the honey pouring in and we had to race around and whack extra boxes on,” Tahere says.

“It was pretty much all kamahi this year, the rewarewa didn’t do anything. Then the clover came in and we put a full-depth box of foundation on in January and they have all filled it up. Some have done a couple of boxes.”

The mānuka flowering was better in the Wairarapa for Hunter Reilly, which owner Stu Ferguson was relieved to see, after early signs were not promising.

“It didn’t look like it was going to get there, but it was a protracted flowering, coming out bit, by bit, by bit and it has gone on, and on, and on. Not a heavy flow, but a long flow. It meant we have had some troubles with getting our hives out of one block and on to the next for a second flow,” Ferguson says.

Perhaps the best mānuka flowering of all has been saved to the end though, with the later budding Taranaki region hitting its straps in January and into February.

“I don’t think I have ever seen flowering as good and it is holding on,” Egmont Honey chief executive James Annabell reports.

“Eastern Taranaki is white. I’ve never seen anything like it. We have had good weather, with touches of rain, which I think is keeping it flowering.”

Team leader Matt McClintock shows off one of the full honey frames in the beehives of Natural New Zealand Honey in the hills of Canterbury, where managing director James Malcolm says they are experiencing an “above average” season – a refrain of many beekeepers around the country.

South Island

It’s not far from Taranaki over the Tasman Sea to Golden Bay at the top of the South Island, and Nelson beekeeper Murray Elwood of Mountain Valley Honey says beekeepers in the north-west of the island are reporting a “boomer of a season”, while in his own hives further east and into the Marlborough Sounds it’s just “average”.

Finding more luck in the Sounds is Rainbow Honey general manager Lubomir Dudek, whose hives span Marlborough, Nelson and the West Coast. He says they have averaged two full-depth boxes per hive across the operation.

“It’s been a good mānuka crop in the Sounds and Buller area and a bit in Greymouth, and there is a decent amount of northern rata on the West Coast,” Dudek says.

Rata trees tend to flower only sporadically from season to season, with sometimes as many as four years between significant showings. Southern rata has not flowered well this summer says inter-generational West Coast beekeeper Gary Glasson, but they may get some honey off it. While it is early to make any definitive statement on the Coast, he is another tipping an “above average” honey return.

“The kamahi got good weather and it flowered really thick, as good as you will ever see it flower. The mānuka seemed to keep flowering, and flowering well, so for mānuka we are probably having our best summer since that big 2020 season,” Glasson says, reporting from his truck during a late January night moving hives to chase more honey flows.

Across the main divide in North Canterbury Natural New Zealand Honey managing director James Malcolm also says they are heading for an “above average” crop. With mānuka honey prices so poor they are chasing volume rather than high-activity honey, and inland sites have not been as productive as those closer to the coast. He puts that down to a November frost hitting the higher altitude mānuka buds. As the calendar turns to February the dry is hitting in Canterbury and the flow has all but ceased Malcolm says. That is a state beekeepers further south know well this season.

“There is a drought in the Mackenzie Basin. We usually average about 80 tonne up there and it is looking like we will get 20 this year,” says Walker Jacobs of Pleasant Point Apiaries in South Canterbury.

“They haven’t had any rain all summer, so as soon as the willow stopped there wasn’t much after that. Just a wee bit of blue borage, but the clover burnt off. It can be blue with borage up there, but it was just the roadsides this summer. Quite a few empty boxes and quite disappointing.”

Rainbow Honey beekeepers blow bees out of honey supers. Mānuka, kamahi and rata have all provided flows across their apiaries.

Closer to the coast in South Canterbury it was contrasting weather, but similar honey results, with some rain and a lot of overcast days.

“They never got a good flow to build up the hives, but it did start to come right towards the end of summer. Some of the boxes look alright, but each hive has probably missed out on a box of honey just by not getting the sunshine early enough,” Jacobs says.

The dry has extended into Central Otago too, with Taylor Pass Honey Company’s Steve Wootton not expecting much honey and saying he knows beekeepers who shut down their honey harvest in January after only meagre returns.

In Southland they are getting the rain Otago would like, meaning their pasture flows are ongoing as clover holds its flower.

“Patchy and late” is how Miele Apiaries owner Chris Fraser is describing their Southland honey season, just days after putting out some more honey supers in late January.

“The season is all over the place. It was six degrees yesterday. Madness,” Fraser reports.

“The ground temperature has only just got up to 18 degrees in the last few weeks for the clover. So the flow is later, but it is happening. Typically when we get the rain we have it means a prolonged flow, but not a strong flow. We just need a bit of heat and it will go.”

If they get that heat in February, the Southland pasture honey harvest will join strong takes off the farm lands of the North Island too. While rewarewa may not have flowered, stronger showings of other bush flowers like pohutukawa and kamahi, will provide bush honey volume, along with some encouraging mānuka honey takes – where beekeepers have made the effort to place their hives.

With that in mind, Rob Murray in Northland sums up the thoughts of many beekeepers struggling to find a willing honey buyer at an acceptable price.

“Getting the honey is one thing, selling it is the hard bit these days.”


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