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Brightwater beekeeper Murray Elwood is not one to blow his own trumpet, but he makes some of the best honeys in the country.
Mr Elwood, who runs Mountain Valley Honey with wife Nicky, won four prizes at the recent national honey show in Ashburton, including a first for their manuka in the natural dark honey category.
And it's not a one-off: the Elwoods have established an impressive record at the show over the past four years, including winning with their manuka in 2010 and taking the trophy for the top liquid honey in 2012.
They are not the only honey producers from the region to do well this year. Marlborough apiarist Renee De Luca, founder of the Putake brand, won three prizes for her manuka, wildflower and matagouri honeys, while a honey dew produced by Jeff Lukey, of Sherry River, scored the most points in any category.
While delighted with their awards and the marketing edge it brought to their business, the Elwoods said the annual show showcased the wide variety of honeys New Zealand produced.
Manuka got a lot of attention but there were other honeys of stunning colour, flavour and texture.
"As a beekeeper it is interesting to see honeys with crazy flavours we had never thought of," Mr Elwood said. They included one tasting of fermenting grape and another of pumpkin.
He said much of their success was due to having prime hive sites and then presenting their honeys well and free of any contaminants.
It also helped that this season had been excellent for both quantity and quality.
"The long dry summer was terrible for farmers but great for us.
"It meant the bees were out there almost every day collecting honey."
With 1200 hives scattered throughout the Marlborough Sounds, Nelson and Maruia, he could usually count on a good range and flow of honey. Typically, two-thirds was manuka, with the rest a mix of kamahi, native bush, autumn golds and honey dew.
Manuka - which is fetching $16-$17 a kilogram wholesale, up from $15.50 last year - provided a good living most of the time, but production and income fluctuated.
"Some years we may not get a box off a hive."
The high price had attracted more beekeepers into the top of the south which was getting close to saturation point.
Unlike in the North Island, which had most of the really valuable active manuka, the competition for hive sites here hadn't turned really nasty, although some beekeepers were paying landowners to secure access.
There was some "territory nudging", but almost all were behaving themselves, the newly elected president of the Nelson branch of the National Beekeepers Association said.
However, the manuka bubble could burst anytime, which would leave many beekeepers "on the bones of their bums" with other native honeys selling for just $6kg.
He had learnt from almost 25 years as a beekeeper, including the last 15 producing honey, that it was easy to get burnt which was why they kept their business compact.
Mr Elwood and two fulltime staff spend long hours during spring and summer in the field collecting honey and looking after the hives, while Mrs Elwood and two part-timers toil away in a honey shed in Hope getting it ready to send around the country and overseas.
They supply both the bulk market - and since buying the Mountain Valley label seven years ago - the retail trade.
About a third of their production is exported to Japan and - from last year - China, which Mrs Elwood said had been "an interesting ride".
It was a market with plenty of potential but a lot of regulation and red tape. There were also doubts about whether all honey flowing into the country was true to label.
"You really need to know who you are dealing with at the end of the line. Luckily, we have a Kiwi over there working for us who speaks both languages well which has been a great help."
Mr Elwood stepped up to branch president and his wife took over as secretary after Frazer Wilson and Kerry Gentleman stood down following the tragic death of their daughter from an allergic reaction to a bee sting.
Mr Wilson and Ms Gentleman were longtime association office-holders and Mr Elwood paid tribute, saying they had made a major contribution.
Mr Elwood said a major priority would be continuing the work to educate the public about the importance of bees to the economy and how to keep them healthy through such channels as the upcoming Bee Aware Month and the Trees for Bees scheme.
There was also a lot of promising research being undertaken, including some locally, to breed bees that could tolerate varroa, one of the biggest disease threats.
"It needs more time, but is another tool in the toolbox."
With varroa mites starting to show resistance to chemical controls, he feared for the future unless new methods were found.
Mr Elwood said he would be trying some out on his bees this year.
With a lot of bush, forestry and untamed areas, Nelson and Marlborough were better off than many other regions which had lost large tracts of bee-friendly habitat through intensive farming.
But bees were still at risk from a host of different sprays, including the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, used to coat seeds, which have been banned in some countries after being blamed for heavy bee losses.
What rankled him most was the danger posed by biosecurity breaches and any move by the Government to approve honey imports, which was likely to bring in more diseases and pests.
Mr Elwood said he still got a buzz out of beekeeping, a skill he was taught by his father who was still breeding queens at 82.
"I came back from overseas when I was in my 20s and he asked if I could give him a hand for a season and I'm still here. They are an amazing insect and you get quite attached to them."
He loved the outdoor life. "You find some really nice smoko spots with views of the sea and the mountains."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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