Honey surplus points to problems

It is the time of year when the honey bees are swarming across the thyme-covered slopes of Central Otago. Problem is — from an economic perspective — they are wasting their time. Mark Price reports.

Is there anyone out there looking for 40 tonnes of thyme honey, stored in 300-litre drums?

If there is, then Cromwell beekeeper Tim Wood would be delighted to hear from them.

While his bees are busy collecting this season’s thyme honey, last season’s harvest is still sitting in a shed, proving difficult to sell at a profit.

Mr Wood said last week his family-owned Lindis Gold business was just one of several Central Otago honey businesses with more thyme on its hands than it knew what to do with.

Cromwell beekeeper Sharleen Coker has 10 tonnes of spare thyme honey. Photos: Mark Price
Cromwell beekeeper Sharleen Coker has 10 tonnes of spare thyme honey. Photos: Mark Price
Sharleen Coker, owner of Wild Central Otago Honey, had 10 tonnes left over from last season, and her bees were busy adding another five tonnes to her stockpile.

"I don’t know how to get people to buy it," she said.

The big problem, Mr Wood said, stemmed from changes in the rules around manuka honey.

Because of its dark colour and its chemical composition, thyme honey was, until recently, used by honey-packers to "bulk up" manuka honey.

Cromwell beekeeper Sharleen Coker checks her hives.
Cromwell beekeeper Sharleen Coker checks her hives.
But in 2017, to ensure manuka honey was "authentic", the Government changed the rules so honey marketed as manuka could no longer be blended with thyme, or other honey varieties.

"I guess the truth of the matter is that the whole manuka thing was an artificial bubble really that was pushing the whole price up artificially," Mr Wood said.

"When the Government put in the new standards, it all stopped."

Hence, the sheds full of thyme honey no-one seems to want.

A kilogram of bulk thyme honey is worth about $4 to beekeepers, but the cost of producing it is about $6.

Mr Wood said prices had dropped for all types of honey, aside from manuka, but while other varieties could still be sold for "really low prices" there was "no market" for thyme honey.

Mr Wood said Europe was the main export market for thyme honey but it supplied all its own needs except in a bad season.

To make matters worse, the big honey packers had pulled out of the South Island, leaving some beekeepers, last season, with nowhere to sell their honey.

Mr Wood said instead of selling bulk honey, a lot of beekeepers were now marketing their own honey as a way to get a bit more of a premium for it.

"But it’s not easy, because the New Zealand market is quite small and it’s pretty well saturated with lots of different honey products.

"It’s difficult for all beekeepers at the moment."

Mr Wood said thyme honey was "a lot higher" in antioxidants than other honeys, but there were plenty of foods also high in antioxidants.

"So, I don’t think there’s anything really that special there."

However, Ms Coker said thyme was a strongly flavoured honey like manuka, and her understanding was it contained many of the medicinal properties that made manuka a runaway success internationally.

"It’s just how manuka honey has been marketed," she said.

She cited an Auckland University of Technology thesis by master of science student Ji He which stated at one point: "On the basis of data in this study, thyme honey displayed greater antioxidant and anti-cancer effects than manuka honey ..."

Ms Coker said one of the problems with sales of thyme honey was retailers putting too high a price on it.

Cromwell beekeeper has 40 tonnes of spare thyme honey.
Cromwell beekeeper has 40 tonnes of spare thyme honey.
She packaged and sold her own honey for $20 per kg, but elsewhere the retail price was often around $30.

"Their prices are too high, and they’re not selling it.

"They’ve got to realise the price of honey needs to come down."

Ms Coker said the beekeepers themselves had "done the damage".

"They’ve made the prices so high for export the buyers have gone somewhere else, and found cheaper honey.

"We’ve done the damage and we’ve got to fix it now."

The problem was not confined to thyme.

Ms Coker said she still had 20 tonnes of clover honey "sitting there".

"We’re suffering — the South Island beekeepers."

Ms Coker said a new co-operative of beekeepers was being talked of and might be the way forward — provided its focus was on helping beekeepers.

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