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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Exit Interview: Peter Bray

Peter Bray has handed over much of the responsibility for management of Airborne Honey to newly appointed chief executive David Hawkey as he takes a step back from the day-to-day running of the company. However, he has plenty of knowledge to impart, built up over 40 years at the helm of the business founded by his grandfather. He sat down with MAGGIE JAMES for a conversation on the business of beekeeping, honey and what his future holds.

Maggie James: Outside of Airborne what are your plans for retirement?

Peter Bray: My partner, Robyn and I are building a house at Tai Tapu on our 1.3 ha hill property. I have planted many natives and nectar bearing plants to attract birds and bees. We are getting a lot of pleasure from the large natural wildlife, including owls, pheasant, rabbits, and hares. The other day a kingfisher was happily flying inside the house.

MJ: What is your future with ABH?

PB: I am a director and shareholder. Quite simply, I will do whatever is needed to support Airborne – whether sourcing a part in the workshop or tracking a file on a PC.

Peter Bray

MJ: What do Ben (son) & Mika (daughter) think about your retirement? What will be their involvement in Airborne Honey?

PB: Mika is working in the lab here at Airborne. Ben is out of the industry.

Both are pleased for me. They have seen my effort over time and the stressful ups and downs, not an easy road to hoe. There have been big changes. The biggest changes have been the crash of honey in the 1980s and the manuka phenomenon; and these have also been major issues for the industry.

In 1987 the world honey market collapsed. This was due to the United States Government Support Buy Back Scheme to their beekeepers constantly rising. At the time, In New Zealand hives were worth $150 each and the wholesale price of honey $1.90 per kg (probably today’s equivalent of $4.90 per kg), the NZ honey market crashed to 70 cents per kg! This was the most stressful time of my career. Back then, Manuka honey was not a factor.

MJ: In terms of planning the change in Airborne Honey management, was it obvious what needed to be maintained and pursued?

PB: Yes, our technical ability adds value to our product, along with traceability, monitoring of pollen and heat damage. I have a natural affinity to science and application to keep up with trends. I collect data and statistics. Statistics can be used to reflect your gut feel; by supporting the gut feel with data. I have pursued testing and refinement of new evidence. I have been willing to change when my hypothesis does not step up with data proof. Not only can Airborne Honey adapt, but it can also adapt to others’ inability.

The laboratory has grown and grown. This used to be an added cost, however whether it’s clover or manuka honey being analysed, the sample needs to be validated, and these days this added cost increases value.

MJ: With your presence in the industry for such a long time and prior to such strict compliance – do you think the amount of bureaucracy has been for the better or worse?

PB: I can’t say that it is better or worse.

Some of the bureaucracy is necessary and outside our control. We are a nation that produces food, competing in a world that produces cheap subsidised food. We must be able to sell our products, and we have to sell in markets where people want us to stop selling.

Europeans do not want to give up their heavily subsidised food supply. European governments push for their agriculture production to be more efficient, but their farms are small. Therefore, the European markets come up with a regulation and then NZ must come up with a way of competing.

If we want to export honey we need to keep up. If NZ doesn’t have infrastructure i.e. bureaucracy, how can we meet those expectations? The same applies to dairy, beef and lamb.

We just have to adjust to MPI and the Animal Products Act decisions, along with decrees that have come out of various industries and intergovernmental agreements.

MPI pushing mandatory cost structures are not easy for beekeepers. Beekeepers need to make a living and if growth is slow, but steady, this aids the beekeeper. Unfortunately, manuka has been like putting rocket fuel in the mix, plus equipment suppliers are always trying to sell the latest and greatest.

MJ: Outside of digital technology, what types of technology have advanced ABH?

PB: We have had a major emphasis on software. We were the first NZ honey company for customers scanning the Airborne Honey label QR code of their jar of honey. This automatically takes them to our webpage with information for that batch of honey, the map of NZ showing where the honey was produced, with approximations of all analytical data collected with that. Not so much in NZ, but in some countries, this is much appreciated.

On site we have a melting facility pioneered here at Airborne, with a patented process to get honey out of drums without heat damage; allowing superior product to be produced and packed.

These days extraction plants have separate tanks for batching processes, aiding samples to represent a batch accurately. Otherwise, if the sample is taken just from the first drum, this is not reflective of all drums. Ideally, extraction plants have stirrers to homogenise. These stirrers are not expensive, and used with bigger holding tanks, batches can be larger amounts.

MJ: With regard to honey analysis and honey being offered to Airborne – have you noticed an increase in American foulbrood (AFB) & glyphosate showing up on analysis?

PB: AFB does not poison consumers, therefore analysis not required. Unless there is data stating AFB spores and counts in honey were to get out of control, why would we bother?

There has not been an increase in glyphosate on analysis – there has been a decrease.

MJ: What happens if glyphosate is detected?

PB: The honey gets blended to non-detectable. We try to balance consumer’s perception to science. The glyphosate issue is a classic example of nonsense. The public have been swept along and we must try to minimise levels using analysis. Common table salt is more toxic than glyphosate.

Unfortunately, the honey industry will not be able to educate the public. If humans stop using glyphosate, food production will be minimised, and the world needs to maximise food production. Zero use of glyphosate, suggested by some politicians, would have devastating consequences on the NZ economy, setting us back 150 years.

We need to keep the glyphosate issue in context. With the NZ maximum domestic default rate of 0.1mg/kg of glyphosate levels, you would need to eat 230kg of honey daily your entire life to reach the World Health Organisation, Acceptable Daily Intake for glyphosate.

Another toxicity issue that somehow regularly raises its head is honey containing Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). To my knowledge no one has ever been poisoned consuming honey containing PAs.

The industry has been regulated to death with the tutin issue. Tutin poisonings are rare and, except for one case in the 1950s caused by a commercial beekeeper, all have been at the hands of hobbyists. The multiple poisoning outbreak in 2008 was instigated by an inexperienced hobbyist beekeeper. So, we now have significant industry regulation with toxic honey, and the focus is not on the right place i.e. hobbyist beekeepers.

Prior to the Animal Products Act (APA), the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) recommended that designated areas be closed to beekeeping mid-December to early May the next year i.e. in that period those areas legally were hive free. This remarkably simple, risk management was effective, easily administered, was kept in front protecting consumers and the industry, every year filtering down to ground level. Unfortunately, since 2001, tutin areas legally have permanent all year apiary sites.

Many of our industry regulations have now been rolled into the APA and tutin exposure is signed off by the beekeeper at extraction or sell point to a packer. Yet, most hobbyist beekeepers do not use a contract extractor or packer.

MJ: Considering glyphosate appears to be through the entire food chain, do you think the honey industry has been unfairly targeted?

PB: Not at all. It’s a consequence of legislation. We need to manage risk, so you manage default levels. Export and domestic levels are different. Export levels vary country to country.

Airborne Honey's range of products is well known to consumers and the Bray family has owned and operated the company the company since 1910.

MJ: Where do you see the NZ beekeeping industry going long term?

PB: Manuka has been an absolute phenomenon. There has never been a polyfloral like it, since the time of NZ commercial honey trade commencing in the 1920-30s. There have been numerous papers published on manuka, and the likelihood of another polyfloral phenomena to this extent is unlikely.

The world honey crop is 1.5 to 1.8 million tonnes per annum, yet with NZ producing approximately 1.4% of the world crop, the chances of the industry coming up with such a phenomena were remote. There are millions spent on research throughout the world, with countries trying to provide data for the next polyfloral phenomena.

Manuka has become famous from the gut health aspect for treatment of gut ulcers and there have been brochures published prescribing two tablespoonfuls orally four times daily. This demonstrates the level of BS being put across to the consumer before the issue started to be reigned in and regulated.

The manuka craze has set our industry backwards ten years. Many monoflorals and beech dew were blended with manuka. Internationally, competing countries took that opportunity, jumping into our empty shelf space. We need to re-establish these markers and It could take us another 20 years to go forward with our unique monofloral products.

Other countries have gone forward with their unique product, For example, Turkish dew is sold in Germany on our previous shelf space.

NZ produces flavourful, unique native monoflorals, not produced anywhere else. We produce excellent viper’s bugloss and clover honey. We must market all these varietals as NZ produced honey, naming our country on the label. Therefore, these cannot be substituted. We must work out how to maintain and increase our shelf space, otherwise we will fail.

These days, probably 70% of the beekeepers in the industry, have less than ten years’ beekeeping experience. It takes ten years with full time hands on practical experience and quality networking, to learn about yields in your area. These beekeepers know how to produce monoflorals, factors that impact on monofloral production and how to maintain quality product.

In tutin producing areas, these are the beekeepers, with knowledge to manage this risk, helping to protect our industry.

Beekeepers with less than ten years’ experience came into the industry when clover was $10 plus per kg, and they expected this not only to continue, but increase. Quite simply, this wholesale price makes our product unmarketable on the world market.

Canada is a major producer of clover, and if the world commodity price is $4/kg, then NZ beekeepers need to know how they can produce enough kg to survive, and how to utilise their labour, fuel, etc. In recent years honey production per hive has dropped significantly.

So, has the beekeeper done better? Ultimately if they have some manuka sites they have done ok. Manuka producers need to be concerned that manuka doesn’t, other than as a topical application, have any medical efficacy proven. Its profitability has been lead by false medical claims.

Unfortunately for beekeepers, mainly in the name of bureaucracy and marketing access, extraction costs have sky rocketed. Yes, it’s good that extraction plants using 12 frame extractors easily do hundreds of boxes daily, but some of the equipment in extraction plants, such as$17,000 per extractor, does not have to be as expensive and lavish as it is.

Once upon a time, many beekeepers had their own extraction plants, and they were quite simple and economic to construct, and no one ever got poisoned from using good working order rudimentary equipment. These days they use someone else’s premises.

Labour is another cost that has risen. But at the same time, sugar, repairs and maintenance, and truck running costs have decreased.

MJ: Where do you see the NZ honey industry going?

PB: NZ needs to get rid of it’s surplus honey. Non-manuka honey is accumulating, and the oversupply situation is getting worse. Right now we need to sell at the world price. Canada produces large volumes of clover, and we must accept countries will not buy our clover at a higher price.

Total domestic and export honey sales might be 15,000 tonnes, and we have got 20-25,000 tonnes production per annum. Non-Manuka is approximately 15% of honey exports. It is calculated that there might be 40,000 tonnes in NZ storage. Therefore, we must question whether this honey mountain is a reflection of uncertainty.


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