My time here in New Zealand is drawing to a close. I have managed to interview three different beekeepers and have had a great time too, plus I have picked up a bit of a sun tan. All three interviewees were generous with their time and gave me plenty of interesting material for my book.
Peter Bray of Airborne Honey was passionate about honey analysis and his company use some very sophisticated equipment in their lab to analyse the different types of sugar and pollen in the honey samples they receive from out in the field. I saw pollen grains under a microscope for the first time; dandelion pollen this case, and I got to taste rata honey which is Peter’s favourite. The rata is a native New Zealand tree which grows on the West Coast of the South Island although it can be temperamental, so you get some great years and some yielding no honey at all.
Rae Butler gave my son and I a warm welcome on a scorching hot day. She is now specialising purely in queen breeding, specifically the breeding of the VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygienic) trait, and it was very interesting to watch her collecting semen from drones then instrumentally inseminating a new queen. I think that commercial bee farmers are primarily looking for queens which produce plenty of honey, don’t swarm unduly and show good disease resistance, but presumably if a queen has these traits plus the VSH one too it would be a good thing. One peculiarity of the VSH bees is that they have slightly patchy brood patterns because they uncap brood which has varroa in it.
Yesterday I drove up to Oxford to the North of Christchurch to meet Lorraine Muldoon who is a lovely farmer with plenty of strings to her bow. Her beekeeping operation is mostly geared towards beechwood honeydew honey although she does move some hives to the clover and pollinates crops for local farmers. There are a lot of farmers here. She also has some cattle, about a hundred yews and a deer farm too. The deer antlers are sold separately to the carcasses and fetch a high price because of their velvet covering, which is apparently much in demand for health food stores. A gorgeous late lamb who’s mother died was being kept in the back garden and I got a very cute video of it being bottle fed warm milk. When I arrived Lorraine was in the honey shed extracting so I got some good photographs of that and, of course, a taste of the honey straight from the comb. The market for honeydew honey used to be mainly Germany but now it is gaining popularity elsewhere, and rightly so.
I have also been very impressed with the quality of food served here in Christchurch. We have found some incredible places to eat, some cheap and some not, but all of high quality. Driving here is pretty straightforward too, what with them driving on the left, and the only real problem is all of the building work in the town, of which there is a huge amount. A street can be open one day and closed the next so the poor Sat Nav (GPS) gets a bit confused. Luckily I am a walrus; a creature with an uncanny sense of direction, so all is well. Once you get out of the city the roads tend to be very straight through the Canterbury plains, with enormous great hedges along the roadside and around fields which act as much needed wind breaks.
The reason for all of the building work is the earthquakes. Lorraine told me about the beekeepers that were cut off from their hives on the Manuka because the roads were destroyed by the quakes. These guys are making enormous money right now from their honey so they wasted no time and quickly commissioned helicopters to take themselves and their equipment to and from the hives until the roads were repaired. Expensive but still worth it from their perspective. I think I heard that bulk Manuka honey is selling for about 35 NZ dollars per kilo, which is something like £8.30 per pound. Lorraine was getting £3.33 per pound for her honey which is pretty high by global standards (14 NZ dollars per kilo).
The number of beekeepers in New Zealand has risen dramatically in recent years because of high honey prices and I suspect that when the bubble inevitably bursts, as it surely must, quite a few will be caught out. For now it is safe to say that beekeeping is booming in New Zealand despite the arrival of varroa, which came to the North island in 2000 and the South island six years later.
I shall hopefully visit the nearby coastal town of Sumner tomorrow and then the next day it will be a lovely 30 hour journey back home, covering 12,000 miles or so. I have loved my time here but there’s no place like home, and I can’t wait to be back in rainy Manchester with my lovely family and a nice fire blazing away to ward off the Winter chill.