Covid and Costs Predicted to Persist in ‘22
From Covid forced lockdowns to freight delays, fast rising costs and heavy hive losses, 2021 was a year that threw up obstacles for beekeepers, honey packers and those businesses which provide supplies and services. It’s not all bad news though as we check in with some major industry stakeholders to get their thoughts on operating in 2021 and hopes for improved businesses conditions on the horizon in 2022.
Despite beekeepers remaining essential workers in the eyes of New Zealand’s Covid response, the long-reaching tentacles of the global pandemic were always going to have an impact on apicultural business operations in 2021 and that looks set to roll over into 2022.
While individual businesses were inconvenienced by Covid impediments such as regional border restrictions and vaccine mandates, on the whole beekeepers were able to work through as rules and restrictions became more worn-in and workable in the second full year of Covid lockdowns.
“All of those habits and practices have almost become business as usual,” Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) chief executive Karin Kos says.
“I think Covid’s going be here for a while longer and we are going to have to deal with it for at least another year.”
Costs on the Rise
While it might be business as usual for many beekeepers, suppliers to the industry have been caught up in lockdowns and freight delays.
Plastic packaging specialists Pharmapac, who supply many honey packers, have had a very trying year operating out of lockdown-hit Auckland, general manager Brett Hopwood says. Another service provider to honey houses, HD Process NZ, while still able to operate as an essential business maintaining and installing equipment in sheds around the country, is feeling the constraint of freight delays through some key ports slowing importation of gear. Add to that beekeeping supply company New Zealand Beeswax, whose general manger Nick Taylor says suppliers are feeling the pinch of the rising freight costs.
“2021 was the year that inflation and cost of transport started to bite. I think we were sheltered from that the previous year due to exchange rate and through existing stock levels. They have started to bite now though and there's no sign of that improving. I'm almost weekly getting a letter from a supplier saying you're going to have to move the prices,” Taylor says.
While those suppliers fight headwinds to keep their businesses and their beekeeping and honey packing clients going, the issue of freight is also drastically felt by traders seeking to export honey from our shores.
“The big issue that has come through in the last three to four months is the cost of freight,” Kos says.
“That's been phenomenal. It's quadrupled over the last few months and just trying to get access to freight, with the cost, the delays. So even though we've got the product ready to go, it's been quite difficult.”
It’s a problem exporters are going to face for the foreseeable future too, the ApiNZ chief executive predicts.
“We’ve talked to Government and I've talked to the other primary sector groups. It's pretty much out of our control. It's such a global issue. It's not just us obviously. So, there's not too much of it we can do about it. But that worries us and our members.”
While traders might have trouble freighting honey internationally the majority of demand for honey is very much variety dependent as the calendar rolls over to 2022.
While many around the industry reported difficulty selling manuka honey in 2021, despite a reduced production year, other varieties which were previously slow to sell have found markets. South Island producers have seen their clover honey climb in demand, while honey dew from areas of the native beech tree was also snapped up by buyers in 2021.
“I've never seen the list of such good signals going into a season as what I'm seeing this year,” says Taylor, who is in regular discourse with beekeepers through NZ Beeswax.
Positive signs include below-par honey yields in competing production areas such Canada and South America, as well as soon-to-be free trade with the United Kingdom. And, while honey buyers could pick and choose what honey to buy in recent-past season, things appear to be changing as some packers are now seeking supply agreements with beekeepers.
“Three years ago, you couldn't give a honey jar away. Now, there are two people biting your hand off to get it. Almost all clover is good clover, and even white honey that can be blended with good clover is good clover. Bush honey is popular again too.” Taylor says.
In the North Island the signs are not as positive though and New Zealand Beekeeping Incorporated (NZBI) president Jane lorimer, herself a Waikato beekeeper, says while non-manuka honey might be more readily sought after, the prices are still depressed.
“We're still sitting on majority of our product. I do hear that prices are moving up a bit. I think it's mostly in the South Island though. I haven't heard anybody say the price has shifted a lot, but some have been forced to sell at a lower price,” Lorimer says.
It is all tempered by one big negative. Some beekeepers are having trouble selling manuka honey, as demand from packers and the international market fell back in 2021 following a spike in sales the previous year.
Some beekeepers who have been able to sell manuka honey are facing delayed payments, Taylor says he is hearing.
“Even people that are selling have been drip fed payment, or the payment has been delayed because of shipping concerns or container availability, or just slow payment from the end user, which is resulting in the beekeeper getting paid slowly,” Taylor says.
In the Hives and Into 2022
At an apiary level, 2021 proved a troubling season on two major fronts. Firstly, the national honey take was down, going from 27,000 tonnes in 2020 to 20,500 in 2021, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries. Also in 2021 many beekeepers in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato were hard hit by hive losses in autumn, winter and spring. The main factor was suspected to be varroa mite and related viruses, potentially transferred between hives in kiwifruit pollination.
Early indications are the 2022 manuka honey take could also drop below average, while it remains to be seen as to what effect the mass migration of hives into kiwifruit pollination this past spring will have on hive health and whether problems will again manifest at the end of the honey flow.
Despite those challenges looming, Kos says the honey industry still has some key things to be thankful for in these Covid times, especially as other primary industries grapple with labour shortages and freight frustrations along with perishable crops.
“We have a product that people really, really want, it can sit in port and it doesn't go off,” Kos says.
“We can also still operate in lockdowns and beekeepers are still going out the gate. I think it's pretty good.”