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  • Writer's pictureRoger Bray

What’s the Story?

 APIARIST’S OPINION: ROGER BRAY 

Roger Bray has kept bees since a time when beekeepers seemed to come fashioned with a protective beard, albeit a different kind to this which he is showcasing in 1978. The story of beekeepers, bees and honey seems to be changing though and the Mid Canterbury beekeeper worries certain aspects of the new story might not be for the better.

By Roger Bray

One of the pillars of the recently announced Honey Strategy revolves around the story of New Zealand Honey. As one of an older generation of beekeepers I thought I was familiar with the perhaps untold story that is portrayed in every jar of honey on the supermarket shelves.

To me the story of honey starts with the animals we farm – bees. The incredibly hard work bees undertake just to collect the food that sustains them. The logistics around the number of trips an individual bee must make as well as the abundance of floral sources that needs to be available in order that the colony is able to produce its food source is a story in itself.

A huge number of books have been written about beehives and how the colony is structured to perform its function as an organism that has survived 10,000 years of evolution. Then there have been an additional number of books and manuals written about the actual craft of beekeeping. From a time when the keeping of bees was once undertaken as a religious activity to more recent times where beekeepers had an affinity with their bees and the environment, it seems the Honey Strategy might be promoting a time of change.

I come from a period where beekeepers understood bees and how their colony works as well as the environmental and seasonal aspects that are an important part of every jar of honey on the supermarket shelves. Beekeepers seemed to fit into a mould that sometimes saw their only protection from bees zeroing in to dispatch their stings was by growing facial hair. The story of a beekeeper today is a person with a suit that covers his whole body that allows him to conduct tasks with more speed. Some of the recent photos of beekeeping often appear with multitudes of bees in the air also covering hives, I wonder about animal welfare issues within the commercialised apiculture industry of today.

Like the wine industry, a few years ago beekeepers and honey marketers promoted honey on its natural flavours with climatic and regional differences. Because bees take advantage of any floral source within their foraging range of 40 square km surrounding their hive it is to be expected their stored honey will be a mix of different nectars. Seems now the Honey Strategy might somehow seek to regulate how beekeepers can promote honey that has been collected by bees for their food when it is marketed as human food. The marketing of honey appears poised to become set by regulation of government where marketers will have a list of chemical ingredients that must be included in each pot of honey they offer for sale. Is the true story behind honey becoming lost?

Adding to the confusing message, or story, surrounding mānuka honey, is what is happening to other honey and bee products marketed by those that traditionally are known as honey marketing entities? A quick Google search of "flavoured honeys" will lead you to the products of some well-known labels extolling the virtues of honey with the additional additives of everything from lemon, to chocolate, ginger, orange, mint, hazelnut, lime and, believe it or not, water. Heck, you needn't go far to find some "deer antler mānuka honey" for cough, cough "strength and endurance". One might ask what sort of honey story is being promoted by these organisations. Are honey processors becoming food manufacturers? Is there an expectation honey marketers would be extolling ‘the story’ of our natural and unadulterated bee products?

There are some within beekeeping circles that hold the wine industry in high regard for its marketing strategy. Do you think our wineries will start marketing Caramel Flavoured Pinot Noir, or Sparkling Cola Flavoured Cuvee? Wouldn’t that be a great story for the wine industry?

One of the pillars of the beekeeping industry is bees, their work and the efforts of beekeepers too. I find it hard to imagine ‘the story’ of the beekeeping industry might revolve around 3-MAP, 2-PLA, MGO, UMF and an array of numbers with a + sign preceding.

There are similarities between the honey and wool stories. For both, there are man-made products that are considerably cheaper to produce and at volume too. The producer cannot compete against price or volume of the marketing power of those that deal in man-made products. We should guard against erosion of our naturalness with the introduction of stuff that detracts from that concept. We have to collectively promote our products on a point of difference, and that starts with being a natural and sustainable product. Right now, with honey, that story is not being collectively told though.



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