Te Kowhai beekeepers buy up 'razorback land'

FAMIY BUSINESS: The SummerGlow Apiaries family handle every stage of honey production, from the hive to the jar. From left: Bill Bennett, James Jeffery, Alan Bennett, Margaret Bennett.
FAMIY BUSINESS: The SummerGlow Apiaries family handle every stage of honey production, from the hive to the jar. From left: Bill Bennett, James Jeffery, Alan Bennett, Margaret Bennett.

It is a hot summer afternoon at SummerGlow Apiaries just outside of Te Kowhai. Bees hoon around the house, sounding like small cars coming and going on a highway.

From the front it looks like a small family operation: a house, three hives sitting in front of a truck, a shed out the back. But in truth it is a not so small family business, operated by founders Bill and Margaret Bennett, their son Alan and son-in-law James Jeffery.

What you can't see is the 2200 beehives SummerGlow has spread around the country, including 900 hives on a new land acquisition in Taranaki.

SummerGlow purchased the 900 acres of marginal farmland late last year. Margaret calls it "razorback land", steep and unsuitable for regular farming.

"Very poor soils, but perfect for manuka," she says.

James says the land has the potential to at least double the company's manuka honey production. Around one third of the land is mature manuka, and was used for manuka honey production this season. The rest is bush and regenerating farmland that will be developed into manuka bush in the coming years. Bush honey and multiflora honey are produced when manuka isn't in season, but manuka honey is the focus for SummerGlow.

Bill, whose uncle was also a beekeeper, was always a believer in manuka honey, and he wasn't surprised at all when research came out touting the honey's beneficial health effects.

The couple were interested in creating standards to regulate the industry, so they worked together with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

"Bill and I spearheaded the UMF manuka honey standard," says Margaret. "So we specialised in the production of manuka honey."

The UMF (unique manuka factor) standard guarantees the health benefits of the honey in any particular batch. Manuka honey can vary in quality from season to season and area to area.

The standard is a measure of the non-peroxide antibacterial activity in manuka honey. It awards a number from 5 to 16+, where anything below 9 is "low activity levels" and anything over 16 is "superior levels with very high activity". SummerGlow sells UMF 16+ manuka honey.

Bill and Margaret have been beekeepers for 38 years. Bill began tending his own hives while he was at school, but had to sell them because the most important part of the beekeeping calendar interfered with exams.

He got back into the industry in 1976, working for a beekeeper in Ohaupo for two years before opening his own apiary.

"I was building up my hive numbers over that time, and I bought 500 hives off him at the end of that period," he says.

The Bennetts ran the business from Hamilton, with a shed in Te Kowhai. They moved the operation to the current location in 1981.

Alan, previously a sharemilker, joined the family company in 2010 after his parents told him they were thinking of selling the company. At the time there were only 700 hives.

James Jeffery (who is married to Bill and Margaret's youngest daughter, Christine) followed two years later, leaving his job in the police.

"My wife and I made the decision based on lifestyle parameters," he said. "We were struggling with the amount [of time] I could spend at home in the previous career."

Both men said they wouldn't have liked to see SummerGlow absorbed by one of the big companies.

The company - as well as the entire industry - has grown a lot in the last few years. As well as the family, SummerGlow employs four full-time staff and one or two seasonal workers during the summer. It isn't the biggest producer in the country, but the family is proud of the fact they manage everything themselves, from the hive right through to marketing and sales.

Most SummerGlow honey is sold though online orders, both within New Zealand and overseas.The honey is also exported to distributors in Singapore, Japan and Australia.

Margaret says there is a good future in the industry for genuine manuka honey. She said something to watch is a series of research projects on other New Zealand flowers.

"New Zealand is fantastic because it's got a lot of different flower sources," she says. "Each of New Zealand's flowers produces a unique honey."