Te Kowhai’s queen bee and UMF (unique mānuka factor) pioneer Margaret Bennett is still buzzing about the “goodness” of honey even after being in the business for 46 years.
Together with her husband Bill, Margaret founded the honey business SummerGlow Apiaries in Hamilton in 1976, and they both were heavily involved in developing the UMF standards for mānuka honey.
Margaret just retired from the UMF Honey Association board after being on the board since 2002, but she is still not done advocating for honey as a healthy food.
“We got to raise the profile of honey from just being a sweet food to one that is good for people’s health,” Margaret says.
“We eat A LOT of honey. Between the two of us, we go through 500g or a kilo a week. I feel like it boosts my energy,” Margaret says.
Margaret and Bill originally produced bush honey, until research by University of Waikato lecturer and biochemist Dr Peter Molan inspired them to specialise in mānuka honey. Molan undertook various research into honey, including the anti-bacterial activity of mānuka honey.
SummerGlow Apiaries started off with about 600 hives, but it didn’t take long until the business outgrew the space in the city. Margaret and Bill moved the business to Te Kowhai, where they now manage around 3500 hives which are spread throughout the Waikato, Massey and North Taranaki.
Margaret, a secondary school teacher of geography, got into beekeeping thanks to Bill, who gained a lifelong passion for bees through his uncle Norman Tuck. Norman was a beekeeper from Kihikihi and as a young boy, Bill used to help him during the school holidays.
Says Bill: “You never stop learning when you work with bees. They are fascinating little creatures. You can’t tell them what to do, so you need to work with them to get the outcomes you want.”
Says Margaret: “His uncle told Bill that honey is more than just a sweet food. It has a lot of goodness in it.”
In 1995, the Bennetts were hit by tough financial times but saw mānuka as an opportunity.
“Dr Molan’s research caused a big demand for mānuka honey ... We already produced a bit of mānuka, but not a lot. We thought, let’s get that to people who could benefit from it.”
They decided to use a then “new technology” - the internet - to reach more people.
“At that stage, about 70 million people had Internet so we set up the first mānuka honey website in the world. Back then, websites were pretty much just pages of writing, no pictures,” Margaret says.
“We wanted to get into the international market, but we didn’t know anything about marketing and retail.”
So, they initiated a meeting with TradeNZ which later became Trade and Enterprise New Zealand. At that meeting, which was attended by various beekeepers and people involved in the honey industry, it became clear that there needed to be guidelines around the quality of mānuka honey.
“The honey needed standards to tell people what a good-quality product is. Before, consumers had to trust the label,” Margaret says.
Out of the meeting with TradeNZ emerged the UMF Honey Association (UMFHA), which celebrated its 25-year anniversary this year. The UMFHA developed standards to certify the purity of mānuka honey.
To develop these standards, the UMF association undertook research to identify what sets mānuka apart from other types of honey. Mānuka honey has a unique bioactivity and certain compounds that are only found in mānuka.
“All kinds of honey have goodness in them, but mānuka has an extra quality that is not present in any other kinds of honey: a natural chemical called leptosperin,” Margaret says.
The UMF system not only measures leptosperin, but a total of four key mānuka natural components.
“MGO is a different standard which sometimes creates problems. MGO only measures one chemical compound of mānuka [methylglyoxal] but has a higher number. An MGO rating of 30 relates to a UMF rating of 2 or less. UMF identifies the purity,” Bill says.
“To make sure our mānuka honey is as pure as possible, we strip all the honey out of the hives and place the hives in areas where the predominant flower is mānuka,” he says.
“Bees can fly several kilometres, but most nectar is gathered in the first kilometre ... there is a high competition for mānuka flowers, so we bought extra land to secure our production,” Margaret adds.
Although their son Alan and son-in-law James Jeffery, who is a current board member at the UMFHA, are the main beekeepers now managing the six employees, Margaret and Bill are still involved in the business.
They are now mostly involved in checking on their hives around the country. One hive is made up of between two to three so-called boxes.
Says Bill: “We put out new boxes during summer and check on [them] regularly.”
Margaret says checking on boxes was her favourite part.
“We get out into some beautiful country ... It’s like getting away on a holiday. When we check on our hives near the Forgotten World Highway, we are always staying at this woolshed. There is no TV and no cell coverage. You get away from the pressures of the world.”