We all know honey is delicious. It’s sweet, rich and takes on the flavours of the surrounding flora and fauna – which means it can taste differently across the world. When I got the opportunity to wwoof on an organic honey farm that produces the infamous Manuka variety, I quickly packed my bags and headed to Bethells Valley, New Zealand.
My destination was Earthbound Honey, founded in 2006 by husband and wife Terry and Karlene Shaw-Toomey. They started beekeeping as a hobby, but over the years it turned into 300 hives collecting honey from wildflower pastures, coastal Pohutukawa groves and dense Manuka forests.
Since day one Terry and Karlene have chosen quality over quantity. This passionate approach ultimately put them on the path to becoming a certified organic honey producer.
“A lot of beekeepers told us we were crazy for going organic because of the financial risk, but it’s not necessarily about that – it’s about the benefits to the bees,” said Terry. “Happy bees make a happy beekeeper.”
Unfortunately these days there are more unhappy beekeepers as global bee populations continue to plummet. The reason behind this growing dilemma isn’t completely understood, but it seems to be a combination of pesticides, the Varroa parasite, and limited floral variety around commercial farming.
“We have our organic hives in locations where they’re away from commercial enterprises like orchards with pesticides. This gives our bees more of a long term stability, which is much better for the local environment,” said Terry.
Earthbound Honey places their hives in several of their neighbour’s properties, which requires an affidavit from the site’s owner that they don’t use pesticides on their land. This may put some people off, but demand for Terry’s bees has never been higher – thanks to the service they provide.
Bees pollinate surrounding plant life increasing its health, which, in turn, increase property value. Hosting Terry’s hives also provides the opportunity to earn a few free jars of Manuka honey.
Why is Manuka so sought after? In a nutshell it’s because the honey has such high levels of antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that it can be used internally and externally to treat ulcers, infections, digestive disorders and other immune system difficulties.
The list does go on, but as Terry explained to me it’s quite a recent discovery that Manuka honey was so packed with benefits.
“30 years ago beekeepers didn’t even bother taking Manuka honey off the hives because of its thixotropic nature, meaning it’s really thick. You need to treat the combs in a more time consuming manner in order to extract its honey.”
The situation changed when Professor Peter Molan from the University of Waikato identified the benefits within the honey. He gave Manuka the UMF, the Unique Manuka Factor, which rates the level of activity from each batch of honey. In layman’s terms – the higher the UMF level, the better it is for you.
At Earthbound Honey I would often take my morning tea with their 240+ active Manuka Honey. Despite my amazement at this level of activity, Terry told me that an organic beekeeper isn’t chasing these high activity levels, it’s just an added bonus to a natural harvest.
“Whatever we get from the hives goes into the jars. If it’s got a high activity level, so be it, if it’s low, it’s low. We just go with what nature gives us.”
This concern for bees and nature is clear to see when Terry is working on his hives. With immaculate precision he can remember each hive’s medical history before predicting their behaviour for the coming season.
I arrived when the harvest was over and winter was approaching. This meant Terry was more concerned about the bees’ health and how he would treat each hive for Varroa (a nasty parasite that is capable of wiping out swarms if left untreated).
Each hive needed to be inspected and those where Varroa was spotted, or suspected, a treatment was placed inside. The organic paste would then stick to the bees and traverse its way through the colony, hopefully wiping out the invading parasite.
When I wasn’t helping out with the Varroa treatment, others jobs were based in the factory. Tasks included bottling and labelling their Manuka, Pohutukawa and active Manuka honey as well as preparing the balsamic, apple cider and red wine ‘honeygars’(honey and vinegar).
The honey that goes into the jars and honeygars was still raw, the only process it had gone through was designed to remove any dead bees and excess wax, making sure all its natural goodness was left behind. Karlene would then use the leftover wax to make candles, balms, healing ointments and a leather and wood treatment. Nothing was wasted.
After two weeks wwoofing at Earthbound Honey, I felt I had just picked away at the surface of beekeeping. Terry and Karlene did help me better understand the dilemma beekeepers face with commercial farming as well the basics of harvesting honey, but I knew there was still so much more to learn.
Terry did tell me that ‘you can never stop learning about bees’ so it seems that I’ll just have to be satisfied with what I got – unless I start my own hive. If, or when, that day does come, I can take comfort in the wealth of knowledge I learnt at Eathbound Honey – and that I still have Terry and Karlene’s phone number.