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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Pedalling Honey

Canterbury beekeeper Dr Mark Hyslop found beekeeping at a young age, but didn’t make a career out of apiculture until he had earned a PhD from Massey University, had already forged a career in vegetable growing and had three kids under two years old. Hyslop Foods Ltd is a sleek 600 hive operation undertaking mānuka honey and beech honey dew production and their own queen rearing. Maggie James talks beekeeping with the contemplative Hyslop, who details his beekeeping story and opinions on the future of the industry.

Diagnosed with dyslexia at 10 years of age, Hyslop has not let the learning disorder hold him back. In fact, he credits it with helping increase his “memory attention” and thus building a successful beekeeping operation.

Mark Hyslop, here with a small crop of sweet corn, is a keen vegetable grower. It was his first career before beekeeping took over, and he and wife Karen still grow asparagus commercially from their Canterbury home. Photo: Alice Hyslop.

Hyslop Foods was launched in 2006 and within three years encompassed 1500 beehives, employing a fulltime beekeeper alongside husband-and-wife owners, Mark and Karen. Now, having sold off many of the hives to a staff member who was keen to go out on their own, a trimmed down 600 hive operation remains, run out of their Greenpark base, south of Christchurch. 

Getting to this point has been a long ride though, one which started out with Hyslop towing a trailer load of beekeeping equipment on his push bike as a teenager.

Learning the Ropes

While Canterbury is the business base now, Hyslop grew up in Hawke’s Bay, his parents photogrammetrists who emigrated from England in the 1960s. It’s a precise occupation for which very few people were skilled. After receiving aerial photography images, they drew the 1:50,000 contour maps, which any outdoor enthusiast in New Zealand would be familiar with.

At the age of 14 Hyslop first started keeping bees, after the interest was sparked in him by a school teacher. He spent the last week of his fifth form year (Year 11) on work experience with a commercial beekeeper, and thereafter he kept a few hives. 

From the get-go, the teen learnt the hard work and dedication required to keep bees on a budget. For four years he transported his beekeeping gear, on a trailer pulled with his pushbike, to his apiary four kilometres from home! The trailer neatly held six to 18 full depth boxes.

With his father’s eye for detail, assistance was given to make beekeeping gear from scratch. If Hyslop Jnr wanted something, he was encouraged to either build it or save up money for it, with the exception being frames.

Summer holidays were spent working for Ashcroft’s Honey, Havelock North, plus a Hastings commercial beekeeper. That work provided an escape from school, which the dyslexic teen began to despise. He says he was not academic, failed sixth form (Year 12) at first attempt and by the time of his final year at high school, he was the oldest pupil on the roll.

Despite this, his parents advised he should go to university for one year, and see how he found it. Then he could have a “proper job”, and Hyslop had his sights set on being a commercial potter – his other passion alongside honey bees. 

Looking back now, he has “absolutely no idea” why he didn’t enter the commercial beekeeping environment at that stage, as he “absolutely loved the bees”.

The foothills of Canterbury are home to many of Hyslop Foods' hives where mānuka honey and honey dew are produced – but they can see some heavy frosts in winter and even into spring when inspections need to take place. Photo: Karen Hyslop.

Uni, a Family, and a Career – Not in Bees! 

Despite his academic setbacks, in the late 1980s Hyslop undertook a Bachelor of Agricultural Science at Massey University. Selling his 20 hives to his father and buying a “hard and fast” motorbike to commute to Massey. Following a two year overseas sojourn, he returned home to begin a master’s degree. Then, a year into that study, with the help of his supervisors at AgResearch Massey, he upgraded to a PhD.

After graduating in 2000, with a doctorate in plant physiology and morphology, he was posted to AgResearch at Lincoln and moved south.

A Career Change

In Canterbury he moved on from AgResearch to a stint with Heinz Watties based at Hornby, on the outskirts of Christchurch. As agricultural manager Hyslop was responsible for managing the team of agronomists who oversaw growing of the crops and getting crops to the factory. 

Reflecting on his path towards a beekeeping business, Hyslop believes his parents’ background, his dyslexia, which has the advantage of increasing memory attention, then learning about budgets and running a large department at Watties, was a recipe for success. 

“I learnt a great deal managing a lot of people and money. I also learnt that I didn’t like working inside with a computer. At that stage we had one child, then Karen became pregnant with twins. With three children under two years of age I left this job when the twins were five months old and I had 25 hives. Over the next 18 months we worked the hives together and that’s when we increased to 1500 units,” he says.

In 2006, just when varroa landed in the South Island in Nelson, quite a few beekeepers exited the industry and Hyslop purchased 300 hives with strong colonies off James Scott at Darfield. These hives were obtained with excellent gear which is still in use today.

Another 280 hives were acquired, in the Mount Torlesse area. Unfortunately, these came with an AFB issue which was only overcome with considerable tenacity.

Funny as it might sound to younger beekeepers today, the mānuka honey produced then was worthless and fed back as winter feed to Canterbury Plains hives. 

A further 280 hives were purchased from a deceased estate, and this time there was a dry rot issue, and all the gear has since been replaced. Hyslop is of the opinion the equipment was not paraffin dipped long, nor hot, enough. 

Four years into Hyslop Foods, a beekeeper was employed. Production then was bulk clover honey, plus 500 hives for South Pacific Seeds pollinating carrots, radish, and mustard.

Hyslop was allowed to leave the hives in the crop after flowering finished, aiding honey production in clover areas. Hives left five to six weeks could be six high with four boxes of honey. If only left three to four weeks there would be less honey produced. The surrounding area was starting to be gradually converted to dairy, and if there was rain in November, followed by drought, the land would produce a strong clover flow. 

At this stage the Hyslops realised they could run less hives and earn the same amount of money with increased efficiencies. Thus, half the business was sold, including the pollination contracts. 

Beekeeping in 2024

These days the 600 hives produce 25 tonne honey per annum on average and currently the Hyslops are holding 70tonne of UMF15+ mānuka honey in their temperature controlled, 6°C, RMP shed. They are aware that they are not the only people with a shed full of honey and it is mentally a huge drain, equating to two to three years without salary, Hyslop says. 

In the past Hyslop Foods have bought in queen bees from other breeders, now Hyslop rears his own queens. He estimates that when they had two labour units, 25% of one person’s job was tied up with queen bee production. 

“We stopped buying in queens because we struggled to find queens that would survive in the mountains, so we now use our own stock. There is no easy way to requeen. At the end of the mānuka flow, from mid-January for four weeks, we use protected queen cells with a 40-45% success rate of mated laying queens. In spring we require 200 mated laying queens – which is not an easy task in Canterbury – to patch up protected queen cell failures,” he explains.

Hyslop Foods have incorporated the queen rearing techniques of a beekeeper who worked for them who had also worked for a queen breeder in France. Queen colonies are six colonies inside a normal ¾ depth box on a post in a paddock, utilising smaller length frames. The box is overwintered as a one queen unit, with stimulation feeds starting about August 10 to build it back up. 

All other apiaries are full depth boxes run as singles in summer, and winter as doubles, with a box of honey stores.

Industry Issues Post ‘Boom’

Having ridden the honey rollercoaster from pre-mānuka boom, through the highs and now to much lower prices, and having previously forged a career in the food industry, Hyslop has some strong thoughts around how the honey industry moves forward. The Honey Industry Strategy 2024-30 released earlier this year hasn’t presented the solutions he would like though. 

“It would be good if the Strategy was in English, which the average person could understand. This document will go straight over most beekeepers’ heads,” he says.

“There is nothing within the report that can be turned into reality. The industry needs a different document. We need a structural plan which includes sales and marketing for the industry and several points where honey is accumulated and blended before sale. Leaving the market to sort out honey handling isn’t working. You get a crop, but you can’t sell it, and that’s not good for the industry. A lot of smaller producers are struggling to get a sale at any price.”

The inclusion of a potential national pest management plan for varroa in the Honey Industry Strategy document is also concerning to the Canterbury beekeeper.

“I don’t think we need another cost to the beekeeper. People should be left to do what they need to do. If this was going to be implemented, it should have been done when varroa first arrived.  Why is it required now?”

Big Not Necessarily Good

Having run his own medium-small scale beekeeping business for two decades, Hyslop says there are certain aspects to beekeeping that larger operators might struggle to optimize. Smaller operators can provide a more hands-on approach to meet the needs of each hive he believes, therefore the bigger businesses are in effect many small operators joined together.

Mark Hyslop unloads hives at a mānuka site using a single hive loader he built, with cable lifter driven by a motor at its base to keep weight low down. Photo: Angus Hyslop.

“Larger outfits probably cannot do 14 rounds of bees per annum. Our hives are visited on a three-weekly cycle and, with that more intensive management, yields are superior. You can’t mechanise beekeeping completely, a skilled labour unit is still required to manage a certain amount of hives.”

The Fonterra Model

One way of helping get honey to markets is if there was a honey “depot” in both North and South islands where honey could be accumulated, with packers and buyers going to that outfit. This would be akin to processing plants in the milk industry that Fonterra owns, although Hyslop favours a joint ownership, with “skin in the game”. 

He therefore looks on at the Mānuka Orchard business of Logan and Tania Bowyer in the Bay of Plenty with some admiration, with it ticking many of the boxes of what is needed in the South Island to add value to the industry.

“The North Island Mānuka Orchard structure is quite sensible and enables accumulation of all the little lines of honey, then these can be blended to create a deal. This is a clever business, if the honey can sell.”

Hyslop believes a lot of the funding problems of the apiculture industry could be alleviated if a shareholder type industry model could be implemented where, to sell a certain product you would need to be a shareholder, and if you don’t hold enough shares you sell at a cheaper price. There is a lot to be learnt by studying other primary producer business models, such as New Zealand Apples and Pears Inc, Zespri International, New Zealand Avocado Industry, and Fonterra.

Surviving and Thriving

The Hyslops have survived by being financially aware and self-sufficient. In the good years they invested money and now live off that investment. Their three children are about to leave home. Their lifestyle block provides their meat, vegetables, and fruit. For 20 years the couple have grown small parcels of asparagus commercially and whilst this isn’t a huge crop, it has been a good financial backstop. 

For Karen, from a corporate business background, the asparagus operation, manning their stand at the South Christchurch Farmers’ Market, administration, and raising a young family has been a full-time job.

It’s full on for Mark too and has been – and continues to be – quite the journey, having gone from a push bike and trailer, trekking four kilometres down a Hawke’s Bay road almost four decades ago, to now a truck heading into the hills of Canterbury every season to haul in the honey dew and mānuka goodness.

If you wish to discuss any aspect of this story with Mark Hyslop email


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