New Zealand drowning in mānuka honey after a boom in beekeeping

<span>Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

New Zealand is drowning in honey after a boom in beekeeping collided with slowing international demand to create towering stockpiles.

Over the past five years, global desire for mānuka honey and demand for home-based honey remedies during the pandemic helped push up prices, creating a kind of honey gold rush on New Zealand farms.

Now, however, demand is slowing, leaving New Zealand with reserves of honey far exceeding the amount it could usually sell in a year. Karin Kos, chief executive of Apiculture New Zealand, said there is a stockpile of 15,000-30,000 tonnes of honey. Typically, 11,000-13,000 tonnes would be sold in a year. She said the bumper 2020 season, plus years of newcomer beekeepers flocking to the industry, helped create the stockpile.

“We had a massive bumper crop in 2020 – there was a national honey harvest of about 27,000 tonnes – well above the average of 19,000. So that alone is a surplus of 12,000 tonnes,” Kos said. “Obviously as we haven’t had the tourists coming into New Zealand and so, you know, gate sales have been down as well.”

Around 2017, global interest in New Zealand’s mānuka honey and its purported health properties meant prices were soaring. The top price for bulk mānuka had gone from NZ$37.50/kg in 2010 to up to NZ$100/kg, with the highest quality being sold for up to $2,621 for a 230g pot. The price boom helped fuel a mānuka crime wave: hundreds of hives or honey stores were stolen over the course of the year, and there were reports of vandalism and mass poisonings of hives among fiercely competitive beekeepers. It also sparked a huge rise in people wanting to take up beekeeping – with some seeing it as an easy path to riches.

A beekeeper examines a beehive in the suburbs of Auckland
A beekeeper examines a beehive in the suburbs of Auckland Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

“People thought that mānuka would be the golden egg – lots and lots of money,” says Jane Lorimer, a Waikato beekeeper and president of New Zealand Beekeeping. By 2020, New Zealand had close to a million hives – up from 300,000 two decades earlier. “There was no doubt that people were getting into the mānuka honey industry,” Kos says. “[But] beekeeping is not an easy job. People think it’s quite simple – it requires a lot of skill.”

Now, some beekeepers are being faced with a decidedly bitter outlook. New Zealand agriculture newspaper Farmer’s Weekly reported this month that for beekeepers, mid-range mānuka which would have sold for $65-$85 a kg in 2018 is now struggling to make $25/kg. Lower grade South Island mānuka that once fetched $36/kg is down to $20/kg.

Related: New Zealand brings first ‘fake mānuka honey’ prosecution

According to a Ministry of Primary Industries report, “demand soared after the onset of the pandemic as people sought health-boosting foods, and a record export volume contributed to a record total revenue of $482m in 2021. However, those volumes could not be sustained … total export volume is forecast to fall by 15%.”

While international prices for single-strain mānuka honey have been holding steady, the multifloral mānuka blends have fallen 10% this year, according to the Ministry of Primary Industries. Within New Zealand, the pinch is being felt most acutely by beekeepers, who report their own prices dropping by as much as 50% as large buyers lean on stockpiles. While most of New Zealand’s honey is exported, in-country demand has also slowed. The mānuka boom helped push honey prices up across the board, putting it out of the reach of some households. According to New Zealand Herald reports in 2021, New Zealanders were consuming just 450g per person – down from 750g a decade earlier.

In the last two years, Kos says, hive numbers have fallen to about 720,000 hives. “We’re expecting to see that continue to fall over the next couple of years,” she says – estimating that the sustainable number for the industry is likely about 600,000.

“Beekeepers have done everything they can to cut costs, and I don’t really know if they can cut costs any more,” Kos said. “The reality is we are seeing people leave the industry. We are seeing companies consolidate … I think there have been people getting into the market underprepared. And they’ve been getting out again, too.”