Manuka honey is well-known for its health benefits (see for example 1).Though famous as a product from New Zealand, the results of recent studies (2) show that the Australian variety is just as potent as its New Zealand cousin. But how does this affect the global honey market? And is it even appropriate, from a permaculture perspective, to place such importance on ‘manuka’ as oppose to other honeys?
What is Manuka?
Manuka honey is honey made primarily from the nectar of the Manuka plant – Leptospermum Scoparium – also known as Tea Tree. The honey is considered different from honey made from the nectar of other plants in that it contains the active ingredient of Dietary Methylgloxal, a chemical compound present in the Tea Tree flowers which is “transferred into the honey, where it remains stable and is resistant to heat, light and enzymatic activity in body fluids.” (3).
According to some sources, the only other food items which contain high levels of dietary methylgloxal are coffee (Coffea spp) and cacao (Theobroma Cacao) (see for example 4). The latter two are more known for stimulant or enjoyment value, whereas the benefits of the compound in the honey are well-documented, the main use which even scientific studies agree with being as a disinfectant for wounds and as a possible alternative to antibiotics. As well as the fact that honey is more natural and less invasive than antibiotics, Manuka honey does not encourage new developments of viruses and ‘superbugs’ and indeed, some sources say that it can be used to treat cases of such viruses (1, 4).
Healing in different places
Recently tests on Australian Manuka honey have shown that the honey has the same or similar strength as the New Zealand variety. One interesting aspect of the studies is that they were conducted over a five-year period and so show that even when after being stored for years the honey is still effective (2). This means that buyers in Australia who want effective healing honey but with a low carbon footprint don’t have to get their honey shipped over from New Zealand.
For the honey sellers, most media outlets (see for example 5) seem to be focusing on their new-found ability to legitimately use the name ‘Manuka’, seen as one of the most “lucrative” types of honey in the world (see for example 6). The Bee Culture website claims New Zealand Manuka honey exports total 242 million New Zealand dollars a year, or 176.5 million USD (6), and last year the NZ Herald reported that Manuka honey sales make up as much as 80% of the country’s exports (7).
With so much honey-money at stake the New Zealand Manuka producers do not seem to want to share the profits. In August last year the Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) started moves to trademark the word ‘Manuka’ so non-New Zealand honey producers would be legally obliged to name their honey differently (8).
One potential reason why the honey producers in New Zealand are so protective is the varroa mite. These are tiny parasites which feeds on bees and which, once a bee colony is infected, can cause the demise of the whole colony (9). The entire country of Australia is so far varroa-free (2) so the New Zealand honey producers may be concerned that Manuka honey could potentially be produced on a much more industrial scale in Australia, thus dwarfing the NZ exports.
Manuka seems to be the cause of much other controversy including illicit land-grabs of pieces of land where the wild Tea Tree is known to grow, and confusing figures such as New Zealand’s total manuka exports for 2014 being apparently 1,800 tonnes, while worldwide around 10,000 tonnes of ‘New Zealand Manuka honey’ were sold (10).
What could this mean for honey producers elsewhere? Perhaps the most illuminating findings of the Australian study are that honey does not have to be specifically New Zealand Manuka in order to have beneficial effects. Indeed, all honey has many medicinal benefits (see for example 11) and many claim that these benefits can diminish the further away from the location of the original flowers the human is (see for example 12). With this in mind it may be much more effective to buy honey which is made locally if you want it to help you to stay healthy than it is to buy an internationally recognised ‘healthy’ type of honey which comes from thousands of miles away.
If the UMFHA were to succeed in patenting Manuka this would probably mean that only the New Zealand variety would be tied to the peculiar whims of the global economy and all that entails. If any honey producers in Australia wanted to join in all they would have to do is come up with their own ‘unique honey factor’ and market it in the same way as Manuka honey is currently being publicised. However, it may turn out to be more beneficial for the bees, the local ecosystem and the buyers if they concentrate instead on the local demand for honey and on keeping the environment which the bees live in intact to ensure that the honey can continue being produced.
One colony, made up of up to 55,000 individual bees, has to visit 2 million flowers and fly 55,000 miles in order to produce 1 pound, or 0.45kg, of honey (13). One colony produces on average 60- 100 pounds (around 27 – 45kg) of honey every year (13). When you consider this amount of work, as well as the fact that if a beekeeper wants their bees to survive the year they cannot harvest all of the honey as the bees need some to eat, it seems more understandable to pay more money for honey than for other products.
Australians wanting the health benefits of Manuka honey can now enjoy them from a more local source, reminding us, perhaps, of the importance of using and valuing the resources in our own local communities. Perhaps the only reason why the honey made by your local beekeepers is not internationally famous is that they have not conducted internationally renowned scientific studies on it. The honeys which have been scientifically investigated, which include Australian honey and also many types of honey in Scotland (10), have been shown to have a range of health benefits equal to or perhaps greater than New Zealand Manuka honey.
The plight of bees in general and the vital role they play in the global ecosystem has been well-documented over recent years (see for example 14, 15). Perhaps the best way we can help aid the continued survival of bees is to help to protect the diverse ecosystems which they need in order to live.
Encouraging huge shipments of honey to cross the globe using what is almost certainly environmentally-degrading means of transport may not be the best way to do this. Perhaps more effective would be to find out more about your local honey producers, and check out whether or not you think their honey is helping to create an abundant world.
1. Dr. Axe, 2017. ‘10 Proven Manuka Honey Uses and Benefits’. https://draxe.com/manuka-honey-benefits-uses/ – retrieved 15/1/17
2. UTS, 2016. ‘Australian Manuka Honey a Medicinal Powerhouse’. UTS Newsroom, 29/12/16. https://newsroom.uts.edu.au/news/2016/12/australian-manuka-honey-medicinal-powerhouse – retrieved 15/1/17
3. Manuka Online, 2017. ‘MGO Research’. https://www.manukaonline.com/mgo-Manuka-Honey-benefits.html – retrieved 15/1/17
4. Ward, E, 2017. ‘Methylgloxal and the Health Benefits of Tea Tree (Manuka) Honey’. ChefShop, 2017. https://chefshop.com/Methylglyoxal-and-the-Health-Benefits-of-Honey-Article-P7373.aspx – retrieved 15/1/17
5. Dingle, S, 2016. ‘Australian Manuka Honey as powerful against superbugs as NZ variety, researchers say’. ABC News, 29/12/16. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-29/manuka-honey-antibacterial-australia-new-zealand/8151996 – retrieved 15/1/17
6. Harman, A, 2016. ‘Manuka honey thefts in New Zealand’. Bee Culture, 26/9/16. https://www.beeculture.com/manuka-honey-thefts-in-new-zealand/ – retrieved 15/1/17
7. NZ Herald Business Desk, 2016. ‘NZ honey exports double on manuka demand’. NZ Herald, 6/6/16.
https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11569991 – retrieved 15/1/17
8. Jasper, C, 2016. ‘Manuka: New Zealand moves to trademark the word, alarming Australian honey producers’. ABC News, 25/8/16. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-26/new-zealand-says-the-name-manuka-is-theirs-alone/7789484 – retrieved 15/1/17
9. Friends of the Honey Bee, 2017. ‘Problem – The Varroa Destructor Mite’. https://www.friendsofthehoneybee.com/the-problem/the-varroa-destructor/ – retrieved 15/1/17
10. Usborne, S, 2014. ‘The manuka honey scandal’. Independent, 1/7/14. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/the-manuka-honey-scandal-9577344.html – retrieved 15/1/17
11. Edgar, J, 2017. ‘Medicinal Uses of Honey’. WebMD, 2017. https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/medicinal-uses-of-honey – retrieved 15/1/17
12. Nordqvist, 2015. ‘Honey: Health Benefits and Uses in Medicine’. Medical News Today, 16/11/15. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/264667.php – retrieved 15/1/17
13. Golden Blossom Honey, 2017. ‘Education – Bees’. https://www.goldenblossomhoney.com/education_bees.php – retrieved 15/1/17
14. Hagopian, J, 2017. ‘Death and Extinction of the Bees’. Centre for Research on Globalization, 2017. 4/1/17. https://www.globalresearch.ca/death-and-extinction-of-the-bees/5375684 – retrieved 15/1/17
15. Holland, J.S, 2013. ‘The Plight of the Honeybee’. National Geographic News, 10/5/13. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130510-honeybee-bee-science-european-union-pesticides-colony-collapse-epa-science/ – retrieved 15/1/17