A once overlooked New Zealand plant is now cultivated to meet global demand for high-grade honey products with medicinal properties.
Taken as a soothing, sweet tonic for a scratchy throat, dabbed on a wound or simply slathered on buttered toast, mānuka honey is popular not only as a sweet treat but also for its medicinal properties. Made from the nectar of the mānuka flower, the honey has antibacterial properties derived from dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical present in the nectar. Within the honey, the dihydroxyacetone converts slowly to methylglyoxal (MGO), which is poisonous to key bugs present in ulcers and bed-sores.
Today’s mānuka honey industry is based on wild harvest. However, most of the economically accessible wild mānuka is already being harvested by beekeepers, so industry growth is becoming restricted, and many wild stands of the trees are ageing. Honey harvesters are turning to planting elite mānuka, but how does a landowner choose which variety to plant on their particular block?
The right cultivar can pay back well, but just as for any orchard crop, the wrong variety mix will not repay the investment.
PROFESSOR RICHARD ARCHER
In response, the New Zealand Government and a consortium of industry co-investors are investing in a seven-and-half-year programme focusing on high-performance mānuka plantations to increase the yield, reliability and supply of medical-grade mānuka honey. The goal is to be producing $1.2 billion worth of honey per annum by 2028, up from an estimated $75 million in 2010.
A team from Massey University, led by Professor Richard Archer of Massey’s Riddet Institute, is contributing to the science, establishing a series of field trials to identify how combinations of genetics and environment influence mānuka establishment, growth, honey yield and quality across several potential commercial cultivars.
Professor Archer, an expert in food-process engineering, biotechnology and commercialisation, says Massey was contracted by the Manuka Research Partnership (NZ) Ltd (MRPL) to evaluate the performance of a range of mānuka varieties in glasshouses and in plantations.
“So far we have shown that a high-DHA producer can produce very well when planted in the right new location. But you must ensure that variety can survive and thrive, can combat the local weeds and wildlife, can flower at the right time and is attractive to bees,” Professor Archer says. “The right cultivar can pay back well, but just as for any orchard crop, the wrong variety mix will not repay the investment.”
These findings will contribute to a new approach to cultivating mānuka in New Zealand—a transformation from wild harvest to science-based farming. Information will be made available to the public on the best mix of available mānuka cultivars producing high concentrations of DHA for planting in any New Zealand setting, and how best to grow them for maximum flowering-season duration.
Large field trials taking place on approximately 500ha of marginal land, irrigated farm land and riparian plantings throughout New Zealand will contribute to the findings, particularly on the viability of using mānuka on marginal land where erosion prevention is required. Early indications are that hardy mānuka plants are well suited to tough hill-country environments.
The short establishment period for new plants of approximately three years makes it likely that this could be a profitable new source of income for farmers whose land has steep slopes or unproductive gullies.
Apiarists, landowners and farmers of mānuka can expect a comprehensive support package comprising a knowledge base, the ability to purchase mānuka seedlings of proven performance, a consultancy service and a mānuka screening service for previously untested genetics.
MRPL has now set up Manuka Farming NZ Ltd (MFNZ), whose consultants will be guided by Massey’s computer model, Professor Archer says.
“This calculates how each of the varieties tested will pay back on any prospective New Zealand plantation site. MFNZ can supply the seedlings, organise the planting contractors and introduce the beekeepers necessary to put a plantation enterprise together. We are seeing a new industry launched here.”