You can blame the whole mess on Gwyneth Paltrow.
Manuka honey has been touted outside of its native New Zealand by the likes of Dr. Oz, Kourtney Kardashian and the aforementioned certain actress-turned-lifestyle guru as the superfood of the moment — a Kiwi-produced miracle worker with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties (allegedly) capable of calming upset tummies, soothing sore throats, healing burns and making one’s skin glow just like their favorite Hollywood starlet.
Made from nectar sourced from the manuka tree, a ubiquitous white-flowered shrub found throughout New Zealand, the bitter-tasting honey’s supposed healing properties and celebrity endorsements have prompted a massive recent spike in demand. As a result, the bulk price of mauka honey, — once relatively obscure outside of New Zealand where it is a multitasking staple of traditional Maori medicine — has skyrocketed. In 2010, the uber-viscous golden elixir went for NZ $37.50 ($27.46 USD) per kilogram. Today, the medicinal liquid gold fetches upwards of NZ $100 ($73 USD) per kilogram.
With all of this, of course, comes increased competition amongst producers. The Guardian describes the current state of New Zealand manuka honey production as being a “gold rush” that’s “rapidly spiraling out of control.”
Uncouth — and downright criminal — behavior has been rampant across New Zealand’s manuka-heavy regions including the Northland, north of Auckland on the North Island, and Otago, a South Island region best known for its wines. Nearly 200 honey or hive thefts were reported to authorities from June 2015 to June 2016 and, in some extreme cases, the hardworking bees that make the high-end honey possible have been murdered en masse.
That's right — Gwyneth's favorite honey has resulted in bee genocide.
Writes The Guardian of New Zealand’s once small-scale, now booming and “crime-ridden” manuka industry:
On the back of the boom, hive thefts, vandalism and poisonings have become standard fare, with every beekeeper interviewed for this article the victim of one or more serious crimes. Verbal threats and physical beatings have also been reported and there are unconfirmed reports that beekeepers now travel in packs for protection to work remote hives.
As for the poisonings, financially and emotionally devastating incidents like these — all seemingly driven by greed — have shaken many longtime New Zealand beekeepers such as David Yanke and Rachel Kearney of Daykel Apiaries to the core.
“It is a nightmare, I don’t feel safe any more,” Kearney told The Guardian of a massive hive poisoning — a “massacre” — that claimed tens of thousands of her bees residing on her Northland apiary. “I feel violated. It has almost turned into a PTSD experience for me.”
Unfortunately, the hive poisoning wasn’t the end of the nightmare for Kearney. Not too long after she and Yanke buried their fallen queens, the so-called “midnight raids” began. These frequent acts of thievery have been captured on security cameras installed after the massacre.
“We want to get out of the industry,” says Canada-born Yanke tells The Guardian. “We want to get out before things get worse.”
Yanke goes on to note that aside from hive poisonings and thefts, the health of his surviving bees has declined due largely to the fact that there’s simply not enough nectar and pollen to go around. For years, he and Karney were the only registered beekeepers within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius. Now, 56 other apiarists have encroached on their territory, all looking to make a buck off the manuka honey craze.
Beloved by celebrities as a multipurpose healer and skin remedy, high-priced and much-hyped manuka honey has been dismissed by some as snake oil that's best used as a sweetener and nothing more. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Hive heists: A sad new reality for New Zealand beekeepers
The arrival of unscrupulous amateur apiarists in the Northland have also proved problematic for “no-nonsense, old-school beekeeper" Bruce Robertson.
“The rule used to be that you put one hive per hectare and you didn’t have another beekeeper working anywhere near you for one kilometre,” Robertson, who serves as managing director of the venerable Haines Apiaries, explains. “Those days are well and truly gone. We have amateurs setting up hives 200 m away from our manuka crop.”
Home to 3,000 hives, Haines Apiaries has experienced an uptick in theft, vandalism and poisonings over the last several years. Robertson estimates that three to four hives are stolen from the property per week, setting the apiary back thousands of dollars per hive.
Once a non-issue, security has become an expensive endeavor for beleaguered beekeepers. While CCTV cameras installed by Robertson have captured sticky-fingered interlopers committing hive theft, usually the thieves notice the cameras and destroyed or steal them, too. Robertson now installs two cameras in specific areas: one to record the thieves pilfering the hives and the other to record the thieves pilfering or destroying the camera that recorded them pilfering the hives.
Installing GPS trackers in the hive boxes is another method deployed by apiarists who have fallen victim to theft. However, as The Guardian notes, the devices are expensive and hard to conceal. What’s more, GPS tracking is largely a fruitless effort in this rural stretch of the Northland given the scant availability of cellphone signals.
Painting the hive boxes in easy-to-identify colors and printing unique numbers on them has also not deterred thieves.
“GPS tracking doesn’t stop guys coming in with flyspray in the middle of the night and wiping out our hives,” Robertson tells the Guardian. “There’s no integrity any more — it’s really sad.”
As for the police, they are well aware of the manuka crime wave and claim to be working alongside with New Zealand’s agricultural powers-that-be to put an end to it. A nationwide “database for information gathering” is also in the works.
However, as police Senior Sergeant Alasdair Macmillan explains to The Guardian, underreporting of criminal activity at rural apiaries has been an issue.
“Police are concerned that underreporting of the issue is preventing a full understanding of the scale of the problem and gathering intelligence on it," Macmillan says. "Reducing beehive thefts requires help from those within the industry and members of the public.”
As for traumatized beekeepers Yanke and Kearney, they very much have reported the crimes committed on their property. They've also expressed frustration at the local police department, which investigated the bee massacre at Daykel Apiaries but ultimately abandoned the case due to a lack of “forthcoming” leads.
Across the Tasman Sea in Sydney, Australia, jars of manuka are flying off shelves .... and into the backpacks of honey-looting shoplifters. As reported by the Daily Telegraph, numerous supermarkets, pharmacies and even beauty salons across the city have been "terrorised" by thieves who are able to make off with thousands of dollars of bee-produced inventory (individual jars of manuka honey sell for as much as $80 AUD or $62 USD) in one fell swoop.
“There isn’t any evidence to suggest the thefts are linked or organised by a particular syndicate,” Detective Inspector David Gates of the Sydney City Police explained of the rash of manuka honey thefts. “It’s more likely they are individuals being opportunistic who have seen there is a market for something that is popular and expensive. We saw a similar thing with vitamins a while back being stolen regularly, and even rump steak."
In addition to manuka honey, New Zealand has been rocked by other agricultural crime sprees spurred by high prices and increased demand. As I wrote back in June, numerous avocado producers in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island have fallen victim to brazen overnight ‘cado heists. Some farms have been robbed blind of upwards of 350 avocados at a time. These thieves aren't looking to make the world's biggest batch of guacamole but are unloading the hot fruit by the basketful on the black market.