Bitter sting in battle for sites

PATCH DRIVEN: Most of the good manuka sites for beehives in the top of the south are occupied, says Nelson Beekeepers Club president Scott Williamson.
PATCH DRIVEN: Most of the good manuka sites for beehives in the top of the south are occupied, says Nelson Beekeepers Club president Scott Williamson.

Peter Watson finds Nelson beekeepers are under pressure in the manuka honey market.

Nelson beekeepers are feeling the sting of competition as bigger companies and newcomers spread their hives wider afield in an attempt to seize more of the lucrative manuka honey crop.

It has led to the occasional threat and confrontation, with some landowners starting to charge for hive sites, but it is mild compared with what is happening in parts of the upper North Island, where hives have been stolen, poisoned and tipped over as the battle for the best spots to harvest high-quality manuka gets increasingly nasty.

Black-market beekeeping is rife. In October, a 22-year-old man was convicted in the Whangarei District Court for stealing 87 hives worth $27,000.

While the region has little of the manuka honey with high antibacterial properties which command top prices, competition is becoming more intense, says National Beekeepers Association Nelson branch president Frazer Wilson, particularly in Golden Bay, where he is based.

"It's not like it is in the North Island, but it is becoming more unpleasant.

"A few of the bigger beekeepers are starting to throw their weight around, which is frustrating."

Several are bringing in large numbers of hives to areas already occupied and one, in particular, has begun to offer landowners $20 a hive for sites, which smaller beekeepers cannot match, he says.

"There have always been a lot of hives come into Golden Bay, which I have been quite accepting of, but there has been a huge number all of a sudden.

"We could probably handle it if it was the right stocking rate, but if you put in hundreds of hives where there used to be 50, then production drops way down and it is not as economic for everyone."

Smaller beekeepers survive by getting more honey from their hives, but that is now being threatened.

Mr Wilson, who has 500 hives, says local beekeepers know they don't own the honey resource, but it is galling when outsiders who spend nothing in the bay muscle in. "It's a relatively small community and an asset is being stripped from it.

"Our kids go to school here, we buy our groceries here and the money we make from honey goes around many times.

"They [the big companies] don't even buy their diesel in the bay, which I get a bit grumpy about.

"I don't know how you can combat that. It's just business."

A similar situation is occurring in parts of the Marlborough Sounds, where smaller beekeepers are being squeezed by bigger ones expanding their reach, he says.

Exaggerated reports of the value of top-quality manuka honey are encouraging landowners to charge for hive sites, which is also not helping.

It is probably a blessing Nelson has little of the unique manuka factor honey, which fetches more than $20 a kilogram wholesale, says Mr Wilson.

"We were all hoping we would find some, but when you see what it does to people, it's like gold-rush fever."

Appleby beekeeper Garry Davis, who has 300 hives, says manuka has become so valuable that people have become "very protective" of their patch.

"Some can be nasty. I've had some of my hives threatened to be burnt and tipped over, but it's not as bad as in the North Island, where hives are closer together."

He says he has worked hard to get spots in the Sounds, at the head of the Motueka River and up the Aniseed Valley.

"Here, a lot of beekeepers try not to have to pay for their sites, but I make sure the farmer or landowner gets a good deal."

Mr Davis inquired about putting hives on Department of Conservation land, but the cost of an application was so expensive that he did not proceed, and there was no guarantee a concession would be granted.

Nelson Beekeepers Club president Scott Williamson says most of the good sites, particularly for manuka, have been taken and not a lot of virgin space is left in the top of the south.

"It is getting near saturation.

"Because it is a patch-driven thing, you do get people rubbing up against one another, but it is usually resolved amicably."

Most of what tension there is occurs between well-established beekeepers and newcomers looking to make some money.

"We don't have problems, as far as I'm aware, with theft and bad behaviour."

Beekeepers tend to keep quiet over whether they pay landowners for sites, but there aren't the bidding wars that have broken out up north, he says.

Emmanuel Kelly, manager of Motueka-based NZ Honeys, which has 1500 hives, says he has heard of some paying for sites, but he helps landowners with roading and maintenance instead.

"We may take in a bit of gravel and give them a box of honey."

While securing sites is getting more competitive and is often a case of who you know, it rarely gets out of hand, he says.

"We are far more gentlemanly down here. There is the occasional personality clash, but people are generally respectful of each other's territory."