The manuka honey boom is attracting beehive thieves

by Aimie Cronin / 18 July, 2017
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Illustration/Alamy

It has transformed what was once “a gentleman’s game” into a corporate industry – and attracted the attention of hive rustlers.

Neil Mossop doesn’t have much time for all the publicity about manuka honey. Now in his sixties, he’s been part of the Tauranga-based family beekeeping business all his working life. The hype should be music to his ears, but he’s sceptical. He blames it for making his hives more alluring to thieves, who’ve pinched more than $50,000 worth of them from his sites in the central North Island. So far, none of the thieves has been found and none of the hives recovered.

“Everyone thinks they want to be a beekeeper and make a million dollars and retire to the South of France for the rest of their lives,” says Mossop. But with the thefts along with the outbreak of the invasive fungus myrtle rust, which affects manuka, “some of the glamour might come off it”.

In the six months to January, 408 incidents that involved bees or honey were reported to police, most in the central North Island.

Beehive thefts are one of many problems facing an industry that has more than doubled in size – measured by the number of registered beekeepers – in the past five years. Hive numbers increased 100,000 in the year to June 2016 and now stand at almost 700,000. That growth has been accompanied by a growth in bad behaviour not normally associated with a business traditionally peopled by gentle souls in overalls and mesh hats, armed with smouldering bee smokers.

Neil Mossop. Photo/Peter Drury

Boundary stacking – the practice of putting hives by a boundary fence to give bees access to a neighbour’s flowering manuka – has become commonplace. There are also stories of diseased hives being placed next to competitors’ healthy ones, of hives being kicked in or pushed over and of threats being made against beekeepers.

“Every beekeeper is trying to fight for their good manuka site,” says Waikato beekeeper Joseph Gethen. He reckons there are a lot of good people in the industry, but he would not describe it as friendly.

“There’s no real collaboration,” he says. “Manuka is worth so much now that beekeepers don’t want to talk to other beekeepers about how they’re doing or where they are doing well.”

Gethen, who has about 800 hives in the greater Waikato area, says he bought land up north but put it on the market after receiving threats from a local beekeeper. He says he told local police about it. The response was “Welcome to Northland”.

Joseph Gethen. Photo/Peter Drury

Lucrative crop

University of Waikato associate professor in chemistry Merilyn Manley-Harris says it’s little wonder that manuka hives are so attractive to thieves. Out in the wild with nobody keeping an eye on them, they contain an average yield of 10kg at a retail value of $1000 a kilogram. She says it’s time that beekeepers started to consider installing security devices and restricting access to land.

Apiculture New Zealand chief executive Karin Kos says the industry is suffering from “growing pains” as police close in on organised crime suspects associated with beehive thefts. But beekeepers need to take their own steps: siting hives out of sight of thieves; fencing off and locking properties; installing motion sensors, security cameras, tracking devices and pressure pads; and engraving serial numbers on hives.

Neil Mossop has made sure all his company vehicles are clearly branded so that members of the community will notice if his hives are being transported in a non-company vehicle. He has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can tell him the whereabouts of his missing hives.

Manuka honey producer Haddrell’s of Cambridge has had more than 100 hives stolen since December 2015. The hives, all clearly labelled with registration numbers, were taken from remote locations away from the road. After several thefts, Richard and Moira Haddrell bought motion-activated cameras last year, but they were stolen along with more hives.

Merilyn Manley-Harris.

The Haddrells have no idea who stole the hives, but one thing they are certain of is that the thieves must have known a thing or two about bees. “For a start, they would have to have the confidence to approach a beehive and know what to do to get it lifted onto the ground and then onto a ute or a truck,” says Moira.

Last year, 53 hives were stolen in one night from a site in Turangi. “We turned up,” says Richard, “and the whole site had been cleaned up. Just gone.” Moira believes the thieves must have had several utes or a truck. “Even my beekeepers, who are skilled and know what they are doing and know how a beehive is going to behave when they walk up to it, would take an hour minimum to load a truck.”

She says the bees that were loaded onto a truck first would have been disturbed and potentially stroppy if they had been knocked around. “You would have to have a suit on, and you would probably have to be willing to take a sting or two.”

Molly Hayward of Hayward’s Honey at Whenuakite on the Coromandel Peninsula says her family’s business has lost 200 hives to theft in the past five years. “Whole sites just disappear. It’s the whole year’s worth of work and effort as well as the money you lose and the honey crop.”

Karin Kos.

She has been looking into options for securing the hives and will probably buy tracking devices that alert beekeepers if a hive is moved. The downside is that they only work in areas with cell-phone coverage, so the effectiveness of the device relies on the thieves driving through coverage spots. Hayward says none of the people who have stolen their hives has been caught, but the police response has been excellent.

There are several theories as to who the major culprits could be. Community policing co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Alasdair Macmillan is confident that most of the thefts are the result of organised crime; he says there have been numerous arrests of individuals, several of whom are still before the courts.

Macmillan explains that hive thieves are typically involved in other criminal activity. “It’s rarely a one-off offence for them. The offenders are facing charges ranging from theft and burglary to fraud. At least one offender has been charged with falsifying documents that assisted with theft he was involved with.”

Others in the industry suspect the thieves are people who know something about bees and are keen to get in on the manuka boom but don’t have the capital, or beekeepers who have made contracts with landowners they haven’t been able to fulfil and are stealing hives from other producers to make up the numbers. A Fairfax report in 2015 said that prison inmates were being taught beekeeping at a time when theft was a major crime.

Photo/Peter Drury

The old days

Those who belonged to the industry before the boom remember an atmosphere of mutual respect among the beekeepers, who operated on casual oral agreements with landowners and all stayed on their own patches. Mossop describes it as a “gentleman’s game”.

“It was an industry that was made up of people who genuinely loved bees and nature,” he says. “Now we’ve got a corporate mentality.”

Richard Haddrell speaks of the past in fond terms, too. He refers to the “gentleman’s agreement, where there used to be one mile between each site. Now the hives are everywhere. It dilutes all the nectar and pollen the bees can collect and now we have to feed them sugar and protein supplements.”

Haddrell has been a commercial beekeeper for 24 years and says the job has changed for the worse. “It’s nowhere near as nice as it used to be. We used to enjoy our job and now we are always looking over the fence.”

Moira Haddrell says there are too many people wanting a piece of the pie. “New Zealand didn’t miraculously double in size to allow for this – there’s not suddenly manuka growing in Queen St. Where we used to be the only beekeeper in certain areas and valleys, now there are loads, sometimes five or six beekeepers in a location, so that has had an impact on us as beekeepers. The resource hasn’t increased – if you double the number of beekeepers, the food has halved.”

Moira and Richard Haddrell. Photo/Peter Drury

Strong demand

The Ministry for Primary Industries’ 2016 Apiculture Report confirms that strong market demand for manuka honey is behind the surge in hive numbers, and that growth is being led by corporate and iwi investment.

The number of registered beekeeping enterprises at June 30 last year was 6735, up a fifth on 2015. It was the highest annual increase in recent years. A third of all hives are managed by just 29 enterprises.

Some have noted with pleasure increased iwi involvement in the industry: the growing number of Maori-owned producers includes Kai Ora and Tai Tokerau in the north. “Iwi are keenly interested in reverting land from pasture and forestry to native vegetation, and manuka provides an excellent primary coloniser with the bonus of an associated income stream,” says Manley-Harris.

But that is balanced by widespread despair about the emergence of corporates into the beekeeping game. When Jeremy Friend of J Friend and Co NZ Artisan Honey in Christchurch got into the beekeeping industry nine years ago, it was “old-school and a handshake was a handshake”. These days, he says, there is much more of a corporate vibe. “Some of the bigger companies are getting into the industry and they tend to have money and buy up the land and take over where some of the smaller family businesses have been for years.”

Stu Ferguson was a product development engineer in Wellington when he started taking an interest in bees and decided to start working for the family business. Thirteen years later, he is working as a beekeeper and director of Hunter Reilly Ltd, which has more than 2000 hives, and he has taken a hit from thefts.

“When a hive dies of disease, it changes your state,” he says. “You get quite gutted about it, and it’s the same with theft. They may just look like boxes out there on the land to some people, but it’s our livelihood; the amount of effort that goes into maintaining them, that guts me. And there’s a phenomenal effort in replacing them, too.”

Ferguson is suspicious about the increased corporate involvement in the industry and writes in an email that “corporates will never be able to get, or train and keep, enough competent beekeepers. If they do succeed in training good staff, the staff generally leave and start their own operations.”

Moira and Richard Haddrell. Photo/Peter Drury

The best tools

He says corporatisation fuels the growth of beekeeping by providing beginner or experienced beekeepers with a showcase of the best tools to get the job done, and that then allows the beekeepers to prove to investors they have the skills and ability to begin their own operations. “I talked to an ex-manager who said beekeeping should remain in the owner/operator camp and the big players should market the honey, Fonterra-business-style.”

The True Honey Company owner Jim McMillan has 6000 hives in the Hawke’s Bay region but has had little experience of beehive theft, because all his hives are flown to remote inaccessible spots. He says that although he has heard about unsavoury practices among beekeepers in recent years, he believes businesses have been able to grow thanks to the increase in manuka honey prices.

His company has developed a computer program called Trueview that runs on each property to tell landowners the daily temperature and weight of each hive.

Helicopters are being used to access remote, warm and sheltered sites, resulting in an increase in yield and a better-quality product, because contamination from other nectar sources is minimised.

“With the development of the whole industry, there have been good advances. Beekeeping was historically quite a traditional industry, and the boom has generated investment and thought that has gone into innovation and technology so we can work a bit smarter as well.”

This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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