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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear: The Arrival of the European Honey Bee to NZ

On researching a previous story, intrepid Apiarist’s Advocate contributor Maggie James found herself tumbling down a rabbit hole of New Zealand's early beekeeping history … books, historic news articles, diaries … all in the name of research! What she found? Well, while it may be commonly recognised that Wesleyan missionaries and Mary Bumby were the first to introduce European honey bees to New Zealand, there were others taking part in an intriguing race to transport bees around the globe in the 1840s...

By Maggie James

There appears to be a number of colonists in the 1840s of the opinion they were the first importer of the honey bee to New Zealand – claims seemingly based on a combination of egotistical personalities, sparse settlement, lack of communication systems, attempts to hide failure, and later people quite simply just making assumptions, leading to false information. For these reasons, on researching this article, if a statement or date couldn’t be matched up with at least one other source or verified, then it hasn’t been included. Surprisingly, a number of New Zealand government websites appear to be inaccurate.

Mary Bumby portrait, circa 1830s.

Miss Bumby’s Success

There were many attempts at bringing honey bees to these shores, but often bees died enroute on the generally three-to-five-and-a-half-month journey from the United Kingdom to New Zealand. Colonies died of starvation, suffocation from packing, damaged packing, melted wax in warmer climes near the equator and even superstitious sailors – some of whom were most likely stung then venting their anger.

It is generally accepted the honour for the first importation of bees goes to Miss Mary Bumby, sister of John, a Wesleyan Methodist missionary, landing at Hokianga on March 13 1839. After embarking their ship, the pair travelled to the mission station at Mangungu, overlooking Hokianga Harbour, at which Mary was the housekeeper. The pair had departed Gravesend, at the mouth of the River Thames on September 20 1838. For the women of missionary men, who were often away, this was a lonely hard life, and their women folk were generally the only European women in an area.

Did her two hives of British black bee come from England, or were the bees obtained in Hobart where their ship transited? It is difficult to establish. There is no mention in her brother’s onboard diary that bees travelled all the way from Gravesend. It was a long arduous voyage, with bad weather, lack of water and much illness on board.

Some sources (ref.1) state two skeps were obtained in Sydney, but on reading John’s diaries the ship never docked in Sydney! Transiting in Hobart instead. One assumes sites stating Sydney are incorrect. So far, in researching this article there appears to be no conclusive documented evidence whether the bees came from England or Hobart Town.

A modern day look at the Mangungu Mission House in the Bay of Islands, Northland, where Mary Bumby kept the first honey bee hives in New Zealand.

Bees had been introduced into Australia in the 1820s, so by then bee colonies would have been readily available and for some in Britain this would have been known, and colonies obtained in transit to New Zealand.

The Treaty and the Honey Bees

On February 12 1840 the Mangungu Mission hosted the largest gathering for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, with 70 chiefs putting their name to the document following long debate. Several Northland based websites state 3000 people attended this event at the Mission, therefore it is quite likely this was the biggest gathering of Māori and European at that time. Afterwards at celebrations, did housekeeper Mary Bumby serve her honey? It appears to be diarised by other missionary settlers that, by this stage, she was a comb honey producer.

Fifteen months after their New Zealand arrival, in June 1840, her brother John drowned. Mary married, had six children, and unfortunately died enroute to England in 1862 age 51. Not before playing a key role in pioneering Kiwi beekeeping though. However, back then news travelled slowly and others believed they were destined to become credited with this country’s first honey bee introduction.

Hobson’s Choice … to Introduce Bees

In March 1840 Eliza Hobson, wife of Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand William Hobson, arranged for two straw hives wrapped in blankets to successfully travel with her gardener on the two-week journey Sydney to Bay of Islands. Other missionary settlers also became beekeepers, obtaining swarms from the Mission House and Mrs Hobson. By the 1840/41 season there was quite a clique of beekeepers and their hives in the Northland/Hokianga area and it was not long before large quantities of native floral sourced bush honey was being harvested.

Early settlers and missionaries note an abundance of nectar (in particular harakeke, manuka and Pohutukawa) and that the climate is favourable to their bees (ref.2). Honey and wax production, and swarm prevention was a major conundrum.

Essential supplies from Auckland were often delayed, and honey provided a sugar substitute. Mead and wax were also produced.

Meanwhile… back in Mother England in 1841, it was still believed there were no European honey bees in the distant colony of New Zealand. Therefore, a race of sorts ensued between Mrs Mary Allom and Rev William Cotton to have the prestigious recognition of the supposed first introduction.

Cotton’s Methods

Cotton sourced four straw hives of bees, wrapped them in cloth then placed these on an insulated rack of ice which sat on broken pottery crocks, providing more insulation, with a tap for drainage. The skeps were to be carried in a felt lined hogshead, a layer of well dried cinders would be put around the skeps. Oddly the ice was supposedly to stay frozen for the five-month journey and put the bees to sleep!

Unfortunately for Cotton, the method proved a fast failure. The hogshead was damaged, with angry sailors throwing the bees overboard at Plymouth, the hives not even making it as far as the English Channel!

His father was the Governor of the Bank of England, and apparently was not at all happy on the expenditure of bees for New Zealand. Perhaps it was to save himself from his father’s wrath, but Cotton was quite vague about events, avoiding questions. Oddly many records state that Cotton brought bees to New Zealand, but all the indications I have managed to unearth are that this is incorrect.

William Cotton was an enthusiastic bee master and had published various essays on bee management. After settling in New Zealand, he is credited with teaching beekeeping to early settlers and Māori in the Hokianga. In 1843 he obtained bees via Governor James Busby and he believed that each of his bees recognised him.

Allom’s Quest

Allom was a very determined woman. Whilst she did not travel to New Zealand, she arranged the shipping of her hive. She specifically had a Nutt collateral hive (see image) built, and this was secured in a meat safe, enabling the bees to have cleansing flights and remove their dead from the hive on voyage. Due to the windows of the Nutt hive, bees could be observed without getting stung, much to the amusement of passengers!

The three-box hive design of Thomas Nutt (1832) was only popular for a couple of decades, but was used by Mary Allom to transport bees all the way from London to Nelson. There were two large windows in each of the end boxes, and an observation glass on the top centre. The end boxes are topped by a ventilator, draws contained syrup or solid feed. The centre box contained the queen, with zinc sliders able to be open or shut, and could enable passage of bees between the boxes. A passage way, to insert a thermometer determining hive temperature, and whether or not partitions needed to be opened or closed also existed.

On December 18 1841 her bees departed London on the Clifford, with 56lbs (25.4kg) of honey for feeding and under the care of an Anglican Minister, who throughout the journey ensured that the bees were fed twice weekly with a mixture of honey and water. It was following a rapid journey of only four and half months when the bees arrived in Nelson in May 1842. The intention was for Allom’s bees to be unloaded at Wellington, but due to gale force winds it was decided that Wellington was far too a windy a place for honey bees! Hence the bees arriving in Nelson.

On 3 May 1842, the Clifford ran ashore at Ward Island near Wellington. All immigrants, cargo and bees were unloaded, the ship refloated on the next high tide, then reloaded for the final part of the journey, arriving eight days later at Nelson on May 11. Mrs Allom’s hive was offloaded and delivered to Captain Arthur Wakefield. Included in the delivery were several extra empty Nutt hive-wares, to have on hand in case of swarming immediately after their arrival.

Pipped at the Post?

Unfortunately for Mrs Allom, on May 7 1842 one Dr Imlay arrived in Nelson with a live beehive following a 10-day voyage from Two Fold Bay whaling station in New South Wales – just four days prior to Mrs Allom’s hive making it ashore! On landing, Dr Imlay’s hive was also purchased by Captain Wakefield and within a year he had five swarms in Nutt hives, and was pleased with his manuka honey. Later, the Captain imported more bees from Australia in Nutts hives.

Captain Wakefield was brother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, founder of the New Zealand Company. Essentially, the family were aggressive property developers who ran afoul of many colonists and local Māori. Captain Wakefield lost his life on June 17 1843 at the Wairau Affray, during an ill-considered expedition to arrest Māori chief Te Rauparaha over land acquisition by the New Zealand Company. It’s quite likely Captain Wakefield was the first beekeeper death in the South Island, but it is not clear as to what happened to his hives.

Miss Allom’s Quest to Set the Record ‘Straight’

Allom, a close family friend of the Wakefield family, determined that she would take the credit for the first importation of bees into New Zealand, ran an intense effort to determine from well-placed sources that Cotton had failed, and wrote to many prominent people to elucidate the answer. Once she had her spurious documented evidence of Cotton’s failure, she then nominated herself for a silver Royal Society of Arts medal. The medal was presented to her in 1845 by none other than HRH Prince Albert.

Oddly enough, to strengthen her case and ensure history remembered her honour, thereafter Allom also wrote to various New Zealand papers and journals stating her unique achievement. Her daughter later took over Allom’s letter writing to all and sundry. However, history, missionary diaries and Nelson newspapers note through their activities, she was neither the first New Zealand or South Island importer! Those credits going to Bumby and Dr Imlay respectively.

To the Future

So, there you have it. I have certainly uncovered nothing to suggest Mary Bumby’s bees were not the first of their kind in New Zealand, but confusion may have reigned at the time. What of the early days of apiculture in New Zealand following the arrival of the first hives? Well, I’ve got a little bit of info on that saved up for next month!


Barrett, P. The Immigrant Bees 1788-1898, Vol IV.

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