James and Toby Annabell develop export honey venture in Taranaki
A Taranaki father and son have combined their skills to capitalise on the growing demand in China for manuka honey.
Toby and James Annabell, of Hawera, have established Egmont Honey, which in April will send its first shipment of 10 tonnes - 40,000 250-gram jars - of manuka honey to China, where it's a premium product sold in pharmacies, and high-end supermarkets and department stores.
"In China, people eat honey by the spoonful as a health supplement or they add it to warm water and drink it," James Annabell said. "They swear by it.
"You don't need too many people in China to be eating a teaspoon of honey a day to have a huge market," he said. "But we have to choose our customers carefully so we can build a sustainable supply."
After two seasons as hooker for Taranaki in 2007 and 2008, James Annabell played rugby in Germany and in Hong Kong. That was where he left the sport behind to develop the Asian market for two of New Zealand's largest honey companies.
Meanwhile, he gave his father a beehive as a Christmas present. An agricultural spraying contractor, Toby Annabell found he liked working with bees so a month later he and James bought 100 hives.
After 4½ years managing honey sales in Asia, James decided it was time to pot his own product for export. His father sold his spraying business and the pair set about creating Egmont Honey.
By next summer they hope to have close to 2000 hives producing honey. The company also buys honey from around the country to pack for export to Asia and works with customers wanting honey under their own label.
New Zealand honey exports reached 8054 tonnes and $145 million in the year to June 2013, an increase of 5 per cent in volume and 20 per cent in value on 2012. International demand for manuka honey means New Zealand honey exports are worth more than $242 million annually.
Opportunities and challenges around the production and export of manuka honey will be covered at the Manuka New Zealand 2016 conference in Hawera on February 17 when James Annabell will be one of the speakers.
Venture Taranaki's Anne Probert said the unique properties of manuka honey had attracted global attention and premium prices and beekeepers and honey producers alike wanted more manuka sites.
Increasingly, landowners were becoming aware of the value of manuka already growing on their marginal land or of growing it as a crop, she said.
James Annabell said beekeepers from outside Taranaki dominated the region. "We'd like to be the first port of call for Taranaki farmers looking for beehives on their farms.
"We want to leverage off the fact that we're local. We pay good rates to farmers so it's a win-win all the way. Here in Hawera, we are only an hour away from most blocks. Other hive owners could be four to six hours away. So if a farmer has a problem with a hive, we can be there pretty quickly."
At the moment, all their hives are in manuka country in Taranaki, but eventually they hope to have hives in other areas, particularly in Northland, to take advantage of the different flowering season there.
Toby Annabell said the two-month season began in Taranaki at the end of December, later than other regions. "We rely on weather and on nature for a good flowering season. Beekeeping is just another form of farming,"
He grew up on a sheep and beef farm in the Waitotara Valley, now home to thousands of beehives for the collection of manuka honey. "My father and grandfather spent their lives cutting manuka down and now we're talking about replanting it," he said.
The company expects to increase its beekeepers from three working full-time to five or six within the next 18 months. It also employs up to 12 harvesters on a casual basis.
Mostly, its hives are flown by helicopter late in December and early in January to the manuka sites because they're not accessible by road.
On the shoulders of the manuka flowering season, the bees work on kamahi and rata and on rewa rewa when it flowers every second year.
Toby Annabell is a registered beekeeper and is responsible for the day-to-day management of the hives, feeding the bees in winter, treating the hives for varroa mite and visually inspecting them for American foulbrood disease.
He said he'd always been a greenie at heart, but being a beekeeper required a totally different mindset to that of a spraying contractor. "I look at every tree, every flower, and at clover in a totally different light."
He said beekeeping had made him more aware of harsh chemicals, although he'd always been fussy about the chemicals he applied. Bee-friendly chemicals were being developed more and more but, for example, the spray used on pasture to control the facial eczema fungus was toxic to bees. However, the disease could be controlled by other measures.
"Spraying has its place. Taranaki is a farming region and it would be very difficult to farm in Taranaki without undertaking a spraying programme. I have no regrets about the work I did as a spraying contractor.
"Farmers are friendly towards bees and take account of what they're spraying and when to spray."
He sad he'd never come across a farmer who didn't want beehives. "Farmers recognise that they have to have bees. They're concerned about animal health - whether it be the health of cows or the health of bees."
Of concern to the pair as beekeepers is the number of wasp nests. "Wasps eat the honey and the bees - and they can clean out an entire hive," Toby Annabell said. "They're much more prevalent than they used to be."
Partly responsible for the wasp infestation in Taranaki is the willow aphid which sucks sap from the willow and excretes on to the willowleaf. Wasps eat the excretions, leading to an explosion in wasp numbers. He's licensed to use an application which has been developed to kill wasps and which has a 99 per cent success rate.
"Anywhere there's a hint of honey, there will be wasps," he said.
James Annabell said increasing numbers of hives in New Zealand would protect the bee population. "Internationally, bee numbers are declining, but in New Zealand we're bucking that trend.
"The worst thing that can happen is for a member of the public to have a beehive in the backyard and not register it because that means it's not being checked for disease."
Egmont Honey is holding a field day in conjunction with Northland's Kauri Nurseries at Meremere, 16km from Hawera, on March 2. Phone 021088 20967 for more information.