APIARIST’S OPINION: NICK MILNE
As a queen breeder I get to speak directly with a lot of beekeepers throughout the country. Clearly there are some big changes happening in the industry at the moment, maybe even as big as the changes brought about by the growth of the manuka honey market in the boom times.
If you were a casual observer looking from the outside in it might just look like another case of the boom/bust cycle of agriculture and horticulture in New Zealand, and maybe it is just that. When you’re inside the industry and looking to remain in it, things as they currently are can be a bit scary, or at least unsettling.
Over the last few years there has been a cooling in the beekeeping industry and honey prices have come back, in many cases quite significantly. Some beekeepers and companies are doing just fine. Those that are vertically integrated and others who are bulk honey producers and have strong relationships with reliable buyers are still doing ok. Others, who don’t have the strong relationships or access to markets, not so much.
From my conversations with beekeepers of all size and experience it seems that there are a few trends occurring.
Many small beekeepers who run their hives as a sideline to another job and manage, say, 200 hives are decreasing numbers, selling out completely or putting much less time into them. For these beekeepers the appeal of good prices and easy honey sales are gone and the semi-hobby semi-commercial operation isn’t worth the effort and loss of spare time/weekends.
Those in the next size band from 200 to 1000 are adjusting how they do things significantly or getting out completely (often selling hives on sites to larger operators). Most of these operators run fairly flat management structures and seem to be targeting specific honey areas and putting sites in less valuable honey areas on slower rotations. Some are doing other work in the offseason and chasing more multi crop/migrational beekeeping as the price of some non-manuka honey moves back up a bit. Many of these operations still seem to have a lot of honey in sheds from the last two seasons, so things are pretty tight to the extent that some are just hanging on.
When you start getting up over the 1000 hive size those who have stable pipelines to sell honey through retail or buyers seem to be still doing well. The others not so much. At this size many of these businesses were built on the manuka boom and as such often have higher breakeven points, due to their running costs and possible debtors/shareholders/partners to keep happy. For them it’s not just about the bees and the honey crop. Managing cashflow adds additional pressure and some are coping with this better than others.
The big, big guys – generally the beekeeping operations that you see on social media, on the news, selling high-end, high-priced honey – are big and getting bigger. A lot of the growth seems to be through straight acquisitions or partnership deals.
Across the board it seems there is a significant consolidation going on with the bigger operators buying smaller operations as they exit the industry. This is very similar to what has happened in other ag and hort industries. People who have only known a booming industry with high prices are struggling to adjust to the current climate which may well be around for a while (two to three more years was the expectation of one honey buyer that I recently spoke to).
Interestingly I have been hearing that a lot of established but older beekeepers are also selling up. They were around before the manuka boom, have done well off it, but now seem to be exiting rather than waiting for the industry as a whole to move back up again.
So far so doom and gloom. Offsetting the sales, stress and hard times are a number of younger beekeepers entering or growing businesses in the industry. These beekeepers are now able to go out on their own or build up in size now that hives are more realistically priced and terms of purchase for hives and equipment better. These beekeepers are looking to beekeeping as a lifestyle and long-term career rather than just a paycheck. There seems to be more women entering the industry also.
What our industry will look like at the end of all of this change is anyone’s guess. Hopefully the good beekeepers and businesses can figure out a way to survive the roller coaster ride.
Nick Milne is a third-generation beekeeper and owner-operator of Blue Sky Queen Bees in Nelson.