Nectar Analysis Project a World First, but Needs Beekeeper Support
Is there a more accurate, more detailed way to define New Zealand’s – and potentially the World’s – honey varieties? Esteemed honeybee scientist Dr Mark Goodwin certainly thinks there is and so, alongside Sarah Cross and supported by industry body New Zealand Beekeeping Inc (NZBI), is undertaking a project which will involve catching thousands of bees to analyse the nectar they are collecting.
Over two decades after first conceiving of the idea, a passion project of Mark Goodwin is finally coming to fruition in the soon to be launched NZ Honey Origin Project.
“I’m always excited for projects with the potential to change a little piece of the world we live in and this is one of those,” Goodwin says of the project, which will seek to more accurately define New Zealand honeys and potentially their flavour profiles.
The NZ Honey Origin Project will be heavy on science in its research – examining the chemical profile of nectar collected from the crop, or foregut, of honeybees – but the team behind it hope the outcomes will include an improvement in marketing tools, as well as an improved technique for defining honey through lab testing.
Goodwin, a semi-retired research fellow of Plant & Food Research who has been preeminent in the study of many aspects of the New Zealand beekeeping industry including varroa and American foulbrood, is joined in the research by former Plant & Food Research associate Sarah Cross, and Jane Lorimer representing industry body NZBI.
NZBI will help bring together funding and organise the project, which is expected to last three to five years.
“We decided, as an executive, that this project was worth pursuing for the industry,” Lorimer says.
“Of late, our industry has been struggling with low honey prices. We think it is time we started to invest money and look into the properties of different honey varieties.”
Decades in the Making
The concept of examining nectar collected by bees to help form honey varietal definitions was first floated by Goodwin in the 1990s. However, when varroa mite was discovered in New Zealand, in 2000, research and education on the destructive honeybee parasite took priority. Now, more than two decades on, the NZ Honey Origin Project will soon get underway.
There will be a large element of citizen science, with beekeepers and the general public called on to collect honeybees foraging on target flower species from all over New Zealand. Those bees will then be sent to a laboratory for testing. Nectar from the bee’s crop will be assessed.
“We will analyse a few things, such as various chemical markers, but also the sugar concentration of the nectar,” Goodwin explains.
“We don’t have to study the honey, just nectar. We know that honey has about 80 percent sugar. So, if the nectar of a plant is found to be 40 percent sugar concentration, then you know you will have to double the sugar concentration to make it honey, and that is what the bees are doing of course. Therefore, you will have to double the chemical marker concentration as well. Using that ratio – such as doubling in this instance, where I use nice round numbers – we hope to be able to predict what level of markers are present in a uniform, monofloral honey of that variety.”
If the research goes as Goodwin outlines, it will mean chemical testing of honey could be used to generate more detailed and accurate floral makeup analysis than current techniques, such as pollen counting.
“We hope to be able to define the ratios of various floral varieties within a honey, in a percentage term. That will then enable people to sell a known variety or blend,” Lorimer says.
Honey Into Wine
The honey industry is limited by a lack of accurate variety and flavour descriptors Goodwin says, noting that “light” and “dark”, “pasture” and “bush” are all that are commonly used. He hopes the NZ Honey Origin Project will foster a maturing of the honey industry akin to what New Zealand wine has gone through.
“Our parents bought wine by the box. Now it’s in bottles that tell the full story of the vintage, the vineyard and the complete origin story. It all adds tremendous value,” Goodwin says, while also noting that the coffee industry has undergone a similar journey.
The marketing benefits may not just be in the project’s findings though, with Goodwin seeing great potential in the story of the research itself.
“This project will get a huge amount of media coverage. There is nothing better, as far as media is concerned, than images of a child in a field happily catching insects. It is all media coverage for honey and if you wanted to pay for it, it would cost you a fortune. So, as we go through the research process we can bring the public along and get them talking about New Zealand honeys and the unique floral sources. We can educate them before we even get the results.”
Hopes for an Improved Testing Technique
At present much of New Zealand and the World’s honey testing and definitions are based on pollen counts, which Goodwin calls a “blunt instrument”. The NZ Honey Origin Project has the potential to revolutionise that, which is why he is excited that it could “change a little piece of the world”.
“It may, in the end, replace the pollen counting technique,” Lorimer says.
“In some of our plant species, we get over or under representation of pollen grains. So this will, hopefully, define honeys based more on a nectar profile, rather than pollen grains.”
New Zealand already has an export manuka honey standard based on chemical profiling, as was set by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in 2018 and is currently undergoing a review. However, both Lorimer and Goodwin are quick to point out that the NZ Honey Origin Project is not setting out with the aim of redefining that standard.
“All we will do is provide MPI with information as we get it. That will either reinforce the current manuka honey standard, or it eventually may give them information which means they may wish to reassess it,” Lorimer says.
Years of Work
The project is several decades in the making and is also sputtering into life now, with a small amount of bees collected from flowers in 2020, but only now getting analysed after being frozen for several years following Covid delays. Those bees were taken from clover, kamahi and pohutukawa flowers.
This honey season it is hoped thousands of bees can be gathered. The team is currently setting the parameters for this, but expect to target about 10 floral varieties, including manuka and kanuka.
After the initial collection in year one, year two and three will allow for further refining of the analysis as seasonal differences are taken into account, new flowers potentially added to the list, and nectar profiles determined.
Financial Support Needed
Crucial to the success of the project is getting the support of beekeepers, not just as a means for collecting foraging bees, but also financial support. A requirement to access many co-funding options is displayed industry support, and so NZBI and the project team are seeking expressions of interest from people who wish to collect bees and/or contribute funding, large or small.
Also crucial to the project has been Goodwin’s desire to undertake this type of research. While the amount of work he can take on is limited these days due to a fibromyalgia diagnosis which saps energy, he is excited to finally bring the NZ Honey Origin Project to life.
“This is a world first. No one has ever done this before.”
Anyone interested in supporting the project, by collecting bees off flowers and/or contributing funding, is asked to register their interest via email to NZHoneyOrigin@gmail.com