Since I got a beehive in my garden I have become fascinated with bees and have been reading up more about them. “Manuka, the biography of an extraordinary Honey” is well worth a read. Manuka honey is a New Zealand ‘rags to riches’ success story and this book is written by a New Zealand beekeeper who has observed the story unfold; it was published in 2014 by Exisle Publishing, an independent NZ publishing house.
Manuka is the native NZ tea tree and the scrubby plant once covered huge areas of NZ before being cleared for farming and forestry. The honey from it has a dark colour and rich flavour very different from the more common clover honey. It can be difficult to extract and for many years it was all too much trouble and people could hardly give it away. Then a science experiment gave an unusual result and one man, Peter Molan (MBE), spent the next 20 years trying to figure it out.
The book covers a lot of fascinating science areas but is written in entertaining and simple English so you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy it. It covers the history of how humans and bees developed their interconnectedness; it describes a lot about bees, how they make their honey and what gives it the special properties it is known for. There is a history of bees and bee-keeping in New Zealand, and stories of the scientific journey Peter went through to understand the unusual type of antibacterial activity manuka honey has that makes it especially effective in treating infections.
Then the scientific journey becomes more of a medical and marketing one: introducing the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) system for measuring the antibacterial activity; involvement with nurses across the world who were prepared to try the honey wound dressings on wounds that wouldn’t heal (with spectacular success); and how this caught the attention of the international media leading to the huge demand there is today for manuka honey, not so much as a spread for your toast but as a therapeutic natural product.
It is a fascinating story and provides a good degree of optimism for the future of honey bees despite problems with varroa mite and various diseases that have lead to concerns about their future.
I particularly enjoyed the book having been peripherally involved with beekeeping and its link with horticulture throughout my career. I know or am familiar with the names of many of the people in the book. I have even had my articles published in The NZ Beekeeper journal in the past. Although I am delighted with the runaway success of manuka honey and what it means for beekeepers in NZ, I do have a complaint. I have bought manuka honey for over 30 years to spread on my toast because I love the rich flavour, but now the price is astronomical even if I am not so interested in its therapeutic benefits.