I recently attended a very interesting Hui (Gathering) in Ruatoria and Te Araroa on New Zealand’s East Coast, entitled ‘Manuka and More’. Around 15 researchers from Crown Research Institutes and industry representatives including myself gave talks on subjects related to the NZ native tree Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), which grows prolifically around the coast, and provides nectar for honeybees which produce manuka honey. Manuka honey is being increasingly recognised as a highly active natural product with benefits as an antimicrobial and wound healer, and global demand for it has soared in recent years. Similarly the volatile oil of manuka has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, and is increasingly sought after.
Studies into what makes manuka honey so special, and characterisation of its many different chemotypes and genotypes, has been a focus of much research in the past decade. To the East Coast locals, manuka was once regarded mainly as a scrub plant and nuisance that was cleared to make way for pastural farming of sheep and cattle, but with honey prices continuing to rise and there being little money now in wool, manuka is being allowed to re-establish itself in many areas. Additionally, a lot of effort is now going into planting nursery-raised seedlings bred from chemotypes thought to produce optimal quality and yields of honey and oil.
With the plantation model being in its relative infancy, research into the potential effects of planted manuka on the local pre-existing chemotypes, and whether the yield of honey or oil will in fact be as high as hoped from these cultivated plants, is an area for ongoing investigation.
A growing number of local East coast people and Maori-controlled enterprises are now getting into the honey producing business, and the number of hives in NZ has nearly doubled from around 350,000 to 700,000 over the past 5 years. The sustainability of this level of honey production is another area requiring research, particularly as bees only feed off manuka (and kanuka) nectar for around 6 weeks each season. Monitoring their activities and ensuring they have sufficient food for the remaining 46 weeks of the year, is important.
Of the various flowering plants NZ honey bees feed off, Willow trees (Salix species), are an important source of pollen and protein for bees to feed their brood in the spring time, thus helping them to expand their population and gain maximum strength before the start of the honey flow season. Around the East coast a large number of willows grow particularly along waterways and on erosion prone areas. While the biggest problems for young willows are grazing animals and pests such as possums, rabbits and hares, an emerging pest is also the giant willow aphid which first appeared in NZ in 2013. Apart from infesting willow trees, this can boost the populations of wasps that attack honey bees.
While not pleasing to all, other flowering plants such as the invasive introduced gorse (Ulex europaeus), presently plays an important role as a food source for bees in some areas. However, we should be planting other native species such as Hoheria (Hoheria populnea), Whauwhaupaku or Five Finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) and many others, to provide pollen and nectar as a replacement for that from this imported thorny plant.
Other research presented at the Hui related to the role that mycorrhizal fungi, which grow on the roots of most plants, may have in ensuring the health of the manuka shrub. Most plants co-exist with these fungi, which help them better absorb nutrients from the surrounding soil, and can also help with disease prevention. Also monitoring for potential disease or infestation threats to Manuka such as Myrtle rust, a serious fungal disease not present in New Zealand, but which can affect other plants in the myrtle (Myrtaceae) family.
Recent studies suggesting that manuka seems to be useful at soaking up excremental pollution, and thus may be an ideal tree to plant alongside waterways polluted by effluent runoff from our overly intensive dairy industry, point to yet another exciting development in our understanding about this amazing native plant.
Overall, the range and quality of the diverse areas of research being undertaken, was most encouraging. This combined with the hands-on experience and traditional knowledge of the local Ngati Porou people who are increasingly finding meaningful employment opportunities from manuka-based businesses, gives great encouragement to the future social, economic and environmental wellbeing, of this beautiful area of New Zealand.