New Zealand's apiculture industry is still growing, according to a new report.
The manuka honey industry surged 45% last year to $281 million in exports, making New Zealand the third-largest exporter by value after China and Argentina, despite being only the 16th on a volume basis.
This has boosted income for farms that recently were limited to sheep, beef and perhaps forestry. And for farmers retiring or leaving the industry, manuka honey has helped lift equity levels by lifting farm values.
Bayleys rural agent Mark Monckton, Taranaki, says the manuka phenomenon has lifted interest in, for example, properties in Waitotara Valley and inland Stratford. "Large players in the industry, including Settlers Honey, Comvita, and Tweeddale, now hold a lot of country there."
Desirable 'manuka-friendly' properties are fetching premium prices. Land prices have doubled for some properties, some from about $1500/ha to $3500/ha "only in the last couple of years".
Industry investors are seeking manuka that is later flowering than up north.
"It means beekeepers can move hives in after being up north earlier in the summer; as a result they effectively get two harvests of manuka within the one season."
Demand for land with manuka stands and able to grow more than usually has companies seeking properties that encompass an entire geographic area, such as a river valley.
The inability to control where bees go means a greater defined catchment for a set number of hives ensures a higher concentration of manuka in the catchment of the hives.
"It is always preferable to lock up the entire area, rather than have, for example, just half a valley with a neighbour opposite you. Once one block is secured, companies will seek to buy adjoining properties to grow their single catchment area. Over 100ha is a relatively secure area worth looking at."
And farmers not selling can have apiarists place hives on their farm. "Per hive and payment based on yield are options evolving."
Properties with manuka stands are getting harder to find and more farmers are considering planting manuka specifically for honey production.
Comvita is looking for landowners with 40ha or more suitable for planting manuka. It plans to plant 2000ha of manuka per year.
Spokesman Colin Baskin says Comvita helps landowners develop manuka plantations on their land, using 'high-performance' seedlings, some developed with Manuka Research Partnership Ltd. Such plantations are populated with Comvita's Kiwi Bee hives.
Beekeeper and Apiculture NZ board member John Hartnell confirms the rise in land values but urges "calm heads" rather than risk the sector falling prey to speculative over-confidence.
"There are risks in the sector. This includes over-reliance upon a manuka monoculture. Manuka is not the first choice for bees; its pollen is too small for them to harvest, so they can only get nectar from it, but a hive requires 25kg a year of pollen to function."
He points farmers to the Trees for Bees initiative, where varieties of plantings are recommended, including native trees and flaxes on properties alongside manuka.
Farmers not selling can consider shared income agreements, Hartnell says. He had clients getting up to 30% of income generated from hives on their property.
"But you may carry 100% of the risk, including years when the manuka may not flower. You also have to meet health and safety regulations and access requirements; you don't just get handed a cheque for doing nothing but provide the land."