The Story Of NZ Manuka Honey: What Is It And Why Is It Special?

EDUCATION

10 minutes

Essential Takeaways

  • Honey bees were introduced to New Zealand in 1839.

  • At that time, Māori people of New Zealand considered manuka to be taonga, or treasure. British colonists also started using the manuka plant and experimenting with its uses.

  • Manuka honey is now often used to treat wounds and infections.

  • It can be expensive due to the remoteness of beehives, and the rigorous testing it is subjected to by the New Zealand government.

  • UMF™ gradings are often the best marker of New Zealand manuka honey.

Come on a journey with us.

It begins on a ship sailing from England to Hokianga, New Zealand (Aotearoa), in 1839.

Aboard the ship, amongst their cargo, missionaries stowed beehives that were brought for pollinating crops and food sources. And for honey of course, but not manuka - at least, not intentionally. And not yet.

The story of manuka honey is one of a union between two natural resources, loved and used for similar things on different sides of the world for centuries.

So how did manuka and honey come together? And why has it become such a household name?

In this exploration of manuka honey and where it came from, we’ll cover:

  • The story of honey in New Zealand

  • What makes manuka honey special

  • How NZ manuka honey is different

  • Why this honey may be pricier

  • Making sense of the labelling

  • Where to learn more

Are you sitting comfortably?

The story of honey in New Zealand

It was the brave missionary crew that sailed across the sea from England to New Zealand with its first honey bees in 1839.

Why brave? It seems somewhat courageous to travel for months on a ship with two beehives in tow!

Whilst NZ had native bee species, they were not honey producers. But the native bush proved fruitful for the British bees and soon, wild colonies thrived.

The country’s first beekeepers were primarily Māori, with the first commercial production of honey beginning around 1870. It was only around 60 years later that the Ward family started beekeeping, and that’s where our story begins.

Read more: the origin story of New Zealand Honey Co.

The same beekeeping techniques and equipment were used then as are commonly used today, including the Langstroth hive, with its slidable frames for easy access and minimal disruption to the colony:

Lanstroth Beehive - Manuka Honey History

A Langstroth hive, patented by Lorenzo Langstroth in 1852. Source: The Beehive Journal.

Since setting up the first hives in New Zealand on the North Island’s east coast, where there is an abundance of manuka, it’s quite possible that the first honey consumed in NZ was manuka honey.

New Zealand’s sacred treasure

Widely used for its believed medicinal properties, manuka was referred to by the Māori people of New Zealand as taonga, or treasure.

“Its most significant use was as a medicinal plant. Infusions made with the leaves were used to reduce fevers and treat stomach and urinary problems.

Gum produced from the tree was used as a moisturiser for burns, and to ease coughing.

Decoctions from the bark were used as a sedative, a mouthwash, and to treat diarrhoea and fever. The tree was essentially a pharmacy.”

The British colonists soon caught onto these uses too, and started to experiment with the manuka plant themselves:

“On Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery around New Zealand, his crew boiled the leaves of manuka to make tea. Cook also brewed a beer using manuka and Rimu leaves and found it: “exceedingly palatable and esteemed by everyone on board.”

The wood of manuka has been extensively used by New Zealanders as it is hard and straight-grained.

It’s easy to see, given manuka’s broad uses and cultural significance, why honey made from manuka nectar was appealing, and piqued curiosity.

Despite the honey being used so widely so early on, its chemistry wasn’t studied and tested for antibacterial properties until the late 1980s by Peter Molan, at the University of Waikato.

And his findings were the beginning of a new era for manuka honey.

What makes manuka honey special?

Humans have been curious about the potential of honey since the beginning, and not just in recipes - far from it.

The first written reference to honey dates back to 2100-2000 BC, stating its use as a drug and ointment, on a Sumerian tablet. Aristotle also reportedly said (384-322) that it’s “good as a salve for sore eyes and wounds”.

Today, we have the technology to investigate the ancient beliefs about honey, and finally uncover the secret to its enduring legacy.

So, have we? In a sense, yes. But this is still ongoing.

The osmotic effects of honey have been investigated for medical purposes.  

“The fact that honey has antibacterial properties has been known since ancient times. This is mainly due to an osmotic effect – the sugar solution draws out water from its surroundings and makes it inhospitable for bacteria.

Another biochemical explanation involves the enzyme glucose oxidase, found in the intestine of the honey bees, which oxidises glucose to gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide – a well-known antibacterial compound.”

Peter Molan investigated manuka honey in the 1980s, and published a paper that described how its non-peroxide antibacterial activity (NPA) was perhaps more effective than the unstable activity found in other honeys.

His research suggested that manuka honey was unique in this.

Further studies were inconclusive, but one in 2006 did find that it was in fact, a compound called methylglyoxal (MGO) that was responsible for the non-peroxide activity that made manuka honey stand out.

It did indeed, appear to be unique. Perhaps even special.

Manuka honey for wounds and infections

Manuka honey has been the feature of numerous scientific studies since the 80s, and the research has explored some pretty serious avenues.

“Treatment with manuka honey resulted in a significant decrease in the bacterial cell growth rate as well as downregulation of ten and upregulation of two proteins.

The proteomic profile following treatment with manuka honey differed from the profiles of other antibacterial agents, indicating a unique mode of action and its potential value as a novel antimicrobial agent.”

The above study was carried out on the staphylococcus aureus proteome, the most dangerous of the staph infections.

In the study below, scientists tested manuka honey on wounds:

“Manuka honey has been shown to be especially useful against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The many functions of Manuka honey thus not only clear wound debris, maintain hydration, control inflammation, and stimulate healing, but also sterilize the wound.”

The honey’s perceived ability to keep out bacteria, lock in moisture and clean skin has sparked its reputation as a possible healing and preventative agent.

Read more: Manuka Honey Wound Care.

Even with new medical challenges arising, manuka honey is being investigated as a potential therapy:

“The current and growing crisis of antibiotic resistance has revived interest in the use of honey, both as an effective agent in its own right and as a therapeutic lead to develop new methods of treatment.”

Frontiers in Microbiology, a review.

Our friend Rik: a case study

At New Zealand Honey Co., we’ve had our own hands-on experience of a wound rapidly recovering after applying manuka honey.

A good friend Rik severely sprained his ankle. He went to hospital where it was bandaged and put in a cast. Unfortunately, the bandage was put on too tight, and the swelling in his foot started to bloom out of the triangle of skin that was uncovered by the bandage.

When they removed the plaster after ten days or so, they were shocked to see a purple triangle. Resting at home, Rik first applied hospital cream, and then UMF™ 15+ manuka honey, which we gave him when we heard about it.

However, when we actually saw it, we realised he needed UMF™ 26+. He applied it religiously and within days started to see impressive results.

Within weeks, Rik’s foot had fully healed and today, he barely has a scar.

You can read the whole story (with photos) on our blog here.

Now that we have an idea about why manuka honey could be considered special, let’s look at what makes manuka honey from Aotearoa New Zealand unique.

Is it just manuka honey from New Zealand?

Geography, it seems, plays a large role in the chemistry of honey:

“Molan and Cooper reported that the difference in antimicrobial potency among the different honeys can be more than 100-fold, depending on its geographical, seasonal and botanical source as well as harvesting, processing and storage conditions.”

But much of the scientific focus has been on manuka honey specifically from New Zealand:

“Although some honey varieties have been shown to have beneficial effects in a wound site, most modern research has focused on a particular variety produced in New Zealand from the nectar of the Leptospermum Scoparium shrub, called Manuka honey.”

And so, whilst Leptospermum Scoparium is grown in some other places around the world, the New Zealand plants have featured in a lot of the research into the antibacterial properties that have made the honey a household name.

“A number of studies analysing the antibacterial activities of New Zealand honeys have been completed. Whilst many honey types contained significant levels of antibacterial activity due to enzyme-produced hydrogen peroxide, only L. scoparium (manuka) honey often contained a relatively high level of non-peroxide activity (Molan et al. 1988; Allen et al. 1991).”

  • Leptospermum scoparium in New Zealand, a review.

But New Zealand manuka honey isn’t an easy thing to produce. And this, along with its perceived health and wellness benefits, are the reason for the (typically) higher price tag.

What makes New Zealand manuka honey pricier?

Whilst abundant in New Zealand, manuka fares particularly well on dry erosion-prone hilly slopes, and this is where it is often planted and often found.

As a seral species, it helps to nurture the soil and plants around it, particularly good in less reachable locations that aren’t suited to primary agricultural activity.

But less reachable locations can make it a pain to get to.

Helicopters are often required to reach the areas required by beekeepers, which, as you can imagine, is not a cheap exercise.

Whilst manuka plants are rather robust and can withstand more extreme environments, their flowering period usually only lasts for 2 - 8 weeks of the year, typically around the spring and summer (this varies by region).

This can be irregular, however, adding yet another layer of complexity to honey production.

And we haven’t even mentioned the bees yet!

The manuka plants may survive difficult weather, but these sketchy conditions don’t help our stripey little workers do their job.

So as you can see, producing monofloral manuka honey (honey made primarily from the nectar of manuka plants) takes the synergy of numerous factors, most of which are out of our control.

With its higher demand and restrictive harvest conditions, prices are naturally a little higher than your typical supermarket honey.

But with that status comes a dark side: the temptation for forgery.

As a result, manuka honey is required to pass stringent tests set by the New Zealand government, which are enforced by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

These are in place to ensure authenticity by looking for the five key attributes of genuine multi- or monofloral manuka honey:

.

Source: The Ministry for Primary Industries.

Making sense of UMF™

UMF™ gradings are unique to manuka honey from New Zealand.

All of our manuka honeys are UMF™ graded, so we have a number of guides that break down what UMF™ is and where it came from.

Here, we’ll summarise the key points.

Read more: Decoding UMF™

For a jar of honey to be awarded a UMF™ grading, it needs to have met conditions set by the UMFHA.

These include:

  • That the honey is produced by a company licensed by the UMFHA.

  • That the honey is genuine manuka honey produced, packed, and labelled in New Zealand.

  • That the honey meets relevant criteria set out by the NZ government.

  • That the honey has been independently tested and validated by UMFHA standards.

A jar of manuka honey with a UMF™ grading has not only met the standards set by the New Zealand government for authenticity, but it has been tested again to measure its quality.

UMF™ gradings help us to understand exactly how much of the compounds associated with antibacterial activity are present in each batch of honey.

Read more: How much UMF™ is enough?

In jars with a UMF™ grading of 5+, there is a lesser presence of these markers than in jars of UMF™ 26+.

You might recognise one of these markers: the MGO level.

UMF™ gradings are guided by the MGO level, but if a jar has only the latter and not the former, then it may not have undergone the rigorous testing required to be certified a UMF™ grading.

Read more: UMF™ vs MGO...? Who’s confused about Manuka Honey?

Find our certifications here.


Learn more about manuka honey

If you’re all a buzz for manuka honey, we have plenty of ways you can enjoy it beyond licking it off a spoon.

Which incidentally, is fantastic on its own.

Here are just a few other ways you can use your manuka honey:

Find more ideas and recipes over on our blog.


External sources used throughout the article (in order):

Honey bees brought to New Zealand, NZ History

Beekeeping, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Movable frame hives, Dave Cushman

Langstroth “Original”, Beehive Journal

Mānuka. A honey of a plant, NZ Story

Golden opportunities, Society of Chemical Industry

Honey: Its medicinal quality and anti-bacterial activity, National Center for Biotechnology Information

Osmosis definition, Britannica

 

Honey based templates in wound healing and tissue engineering, National Center for Biotechnology Information

Therapeutic manuka honey: No longer so alternative, Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association

A review of Leptospermum scoparium (Myrtaceae) in New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Botany

The Manuka and Kanuka plantation guide, Boffa Miskell Limited

Testing manuka honey is authentic, Ministry for Primary Industries

Your wellness journey starts with a spoonful a day.

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