Date Published: 11 Mar, 2021
Mānuka Honey is one of the world’s most sought-after honeys, prized for its special health-giving properties. You will find articles all over the internet about Mānuka Honey – about its properties, its rating scales, its health and medicinal uses.
But in the end, many of these articles are written by producers of Mānuka Honey where they are promoting their own honey, their own rating scale or their own countries of origin.
Well, I’m Brenda Tahi, CEO of Manawa Honey NZ, and we’re a producer of Mānuka Honey too. But I’m offering you here a series of articles that tell the fascinating story of this incredible honey, unencumbered by threads of hard-sell – just the button at the end!
This first article broadly covers the Mānuka tree, what’s Mānuka Honey and the background history of Mānuka Honey in New Zealand. Here’s the sections for your quick reference:
- Mānuka Honey: An Introduction
- How to Pronounce ‘Mānuka’
- The Mānuka Tree
- Mānuka Honey
Karioi Ki Tahuaroa White of Manawa Honey NZ explains how to pronounce the Māori word Mānuka.
Before we start, let’s go to the pronunciation of Mānuka. Mānuka is a word from the language of the Māori people, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Māori pronounce Mānuka as ‘maa-nu-ka’ with emphasis on the ‘maa’. Unfortunately, it has become common in New Zealand and across the world to say Mānuka as ‘ma-nuu-ka’, stressing the ‘nuu’, but for us, this pronunciation is quite incorrect. Check out the video to practice your pronunciation.
Next, in order to understand Mānuka Honey, I would like to begin by sharing with you some background on the Mānuka tree…
Mānuka is densely branched and grows as a shrub or small tree. (Credit: Te Āo Marama Huiarangi, Manawa Honey NZ Collection)
Mānuka Honey comes from the nectar of the Mānuka tree which has the botanical name Leptospermum scoparium, and belongs to the myrtle family, Myrtaceae. Whilst commonly known as mānuka to Māori throughout New Zealand, this species is also known as kahikatoa to some tribes.
The Mānuka tree is extremely hardy and adaptable, and grows in a range of challenging habitats. So, we find Mānuka throughout New Zealand, from the coast to the mountains, tolerating wet soil even marshy ground, to surviving on river gravels or dry exposed coastal hillsides.
Mānuka is an evergreen tree with dense branching that typically grows as a shrub or small tree up to about 4 metres tall. Sometimes it grows much taller, sometimes it grows stunted, all depending on growing conditions. It has sharp-tipped leaves and white or sometimes pink-flushed flowers, with distinctive short, dark red stamens, and nut-like seed capsules. 
Young Mānuka can cover hillsides as first stage regeneration of indigenous forest in New Zealand (Credit: iStock)
In forest regeneration, Mānuka is New Zealand’s main pioneer shrub, as it thrives after land is cleared by fire or other means. Mānuka can flower and seed when just a few centimetres tall – its woody capsules split open when dry or burnt, releasing thousands of fine light seeds that are spread by wind.
Mānuka trees live for only about 30–50 years, when they die from insect and wind damage. As the Mānuka canopy opens, other species germinate and grow, as it is too shady under the canopy for a second crop of manuka.
Thus, the Mānuka tree fulfils a key function in the succession of New Zealand’s indigenous forest – providing a nursery for the establishment of different, taller trees, that emerge as the Mānuka forest dies away. 
Mānuka has grown in New Zealand’s unique climate and geology, separate from the rest of the world for millions of years.  Over this time, the Mānuka tree has developed resistance to many threats such as disease and microbial attack that can emerge from the many habitats it occupies. The system of defense in the Mānuka tree is composed largely of antibacterial, antiseptic, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties in its leaves and bark.
The properties of different parts of the Mānuka tree were understood and utilised traditionally by Māori across New Zealand in a range of medicinal applications:
- Mānuka bark was boiled and the infusion drunk or applied externally to relieve pain.
- A decoction made from the bark or seed capsules was used to treat diarrhoea and dysentery.
- Infusions of the bark, capsules and seed were applied to burns and wounds, or for treating mouth, throat and eye affliction, and to reduce fever.
- An infusion of the leaves could be used as a simple inhalant for colds, for a mouth wash or rubbed on the skin to sooth an itch or heal a scab.
Māori also made extensive use of the very hard red wood and the bark of the Mānuka tree for buildings and a range of apparatus for fishing, hunting and snaring. When dry, Mānuka is also a firewood of choice from the New Zealand forest.
Mānuka was also taken up for many uses by early European explorers and settlers in New Zealand. When the early explorer Captain James Cook reached New Zealand in 1769, he found Mānuka leaf could be used as an alternative to tea and that it assisted in treating scurvy that was a common affliction amongst his crewmen. 
Thus, they coined ‘tea-tree’ as a name for Mānuka, which gained common usage for many years in New Zealand. Early traders and settlers in New Zealand took up the use of Mānuka as a tea, and learnt some of the medicinal uses from Māori. 
In conclusion we can see that the medicinal powers of Mānuka were well understood by our forebears here in New Zealand, both Māori and Pakeha, signaling that once honey was produced from the Mānuka tree, it would be something special too. So the question to now ask is just what is Mānuka Honey?
Mānuka Honey can vary in colour from an amber colour (as above) to rich, dark brown. (Credit: Scott Sinton)
Mānuka Honey is made by bees from nectar that they gather from the flowers of the Mānuka tree. Mānuka honey can range in colour from amber to a rich dark brown, and has a distinctive earthy, medicinal aroma and taste, which signal its extraordinary properties.
Flowers appear on the Mānuka tree at different times depending on region. The northern parts of New Zealand see the main flush of manuka flowers in September-October but in other areas the season is November-December or even later, as you move south through the country.
Each Mānuka flower may only last for about 2 weeks, so that for a mass of Mānuka trees, the flowering will only last for 3-6 weeks. Further, in this time, the weather plays a major part in nectar being available for bees to collect. Rain can wash out the flower, and drought conditions can limit nectar flow. So in any season, as you can see, a number of things need to line up to get a good one!
A honey bee works the flower of the Mānuka tree, but not easily. (Photo Credit: iStock)
Mānuka flowers are quite small and smell quite sweet with the nectar they exude. They are designed to be pollinated by native bees, flies, moths, beetles and even geckos. The introduced honey bee has not evolved with the Mānuka tree, so in contrast to native pollinators, it can find it hard to harvest nectar from this plant, for two reasons:
- Firstly, the native pollinators are much more efficient in competing with the honey bee for the nectar of the Mānuka flower.
- Secondly, the Mānuka nectar is quite viscous and sits deeply in the nectaries of the flower making it hard for the honey bee to extract.
As it turns out, these issues don’t usually bother the honey bee! You see, honey bees are masters in optimizing their nectar collection so they often pass over Mānuka flowers (much to our disappointment!) and just move on to other sources of more easily harvested nectar.
So it is that very high-grade Mānuka Honey is usually produced in areas abundant with Mānuka, where little else desirable is in flower or can be reached by the bees.
Mānuka honey is notoriously difficult to extract from the honey frames because it is thixotropic. Thixotropic means that the honey behaves like a solid when it is undisturbed, but becomes fluid when stirred or agitated. 
So, to remove Mānuka honey from the frames an apparatus called a pricker or honey loosener is normally used. The pricker opens up the capping of the cells of the Mānuka honey and then gives the honey in the cell a little stir. The honey is then transformed into a liquid for a period of time in which extraction can then take place.
So there you go – Mānuka Honey is hard to get for a number of reasons:
- The nectar only flows in a short season each year, which is seldom a good one.
- Honey bees often move on to other nectar sources free of native pollinator competition and easier for them to harvest.
- If they do stick with the Mānuka, then it’s hard work for the bees to harvest the nectar.
- And then, the beekeeper finds it hard to get the Mānuka Honey out of the hive frames!
But after all of that, once you have it, you know you must have something that’s very special.
Except that, before the insights that come from scientific research, they didn’t seem to know this in the early days in New Zealand…
Mary Bumby’s home at the mission station in the Hokianga where the first crop of Mānuka Honey was probably harvested. (Credit: Pen and wash sketch by Richard Taylor, held by Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand)
It was Mary Bumby, the sister of a Methodist missionary, who introduced honey bees to New Zealand in two skep hives that she brought ashore when she landed at a mission station in the Hokianga in March 1839. Bumby apparently established her apiary in the fields surrounding the mission, where Mānuka trees flourished, suggesting that the first Mānuka Honey would have been produced right there.
The indigenous New Zealand forest, with its diversity of trees, proved to be a wonderful home for the honey bee, and the numbers of wild colonies multiplied rapidly, spreading the honey bee throughout the country. By the 1860s, wild honey bee colonies were plentiful in New Zealand’s forests, and Māori had learnt how to find and gather wild honey. Indeed, Māori entrepreneurs had by this time become New Zealand’s first commercial beekeepers, selling considerable quantities of honey they had gathered through their new craft. 
Although one observer noted in 1889 that the Mānuka tree was a valuable honey-yielding plant , Mānuka Honey was not generally valued in the honey industry and, through most of the 20th century, it was priced at the bottom of the ranks.
To many beekeepers, Mānuka Honey was even considered to be a nuisance – too difficult to extract from hive frames!
Additionally, Mānuka Honey has a relatively strong flavour in contrast to the sweet mild taste of clover, which was the honey of choice back in those days for domestic and export markets. Indeed, some beekeepers of those times tell their tales of how they would avoid Mānuka Honey, and if it came into their hives they would feed it back to the bees or use it for animal fodder.
So clearly Mānuka Honey was not always thought to be the best!
Peter Molan in his lab where he discovered the power of Mānuka Honey (Credit: Peter Dury/Fairfax)
Mānuka Honey was transformed in the eyes of the world when in the 1980s Dr Peter Molan, a noted New Zealand biochemist, discovered that it had exceptional anti-bacterial properties.  Molan’s research built an understanding of the properties of Mānuka Honey and its application in health and medicine, which became the platform from which honey producers in New Zealand developed a successful Mānuka Honey industry.
The properties of Mānuka Honey are now known to be many – from antibacterial and antiseptic to antioxidant, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory.
These properties have been well researched. Any search on the internet will deliver research results from across the world that demonstrate the properties of Mānuka Honey and its application in the fields of health and medicine.
We will delve further into the properties of Mānuka Honey in articles to come. We will also look at the different rating systems for Mānuka Honey and even the trademark dispute over the word Mānuka! So watch this space…
Just to end, please post your comments on this article below – I’d love to get your feedback.
And of course, if you want some Mānuka Honey, then here you go…
|Brenda Tahi draws on a range of areas in her diverse experience for her writing. She has an MBA in Strategic Management from Henley College (UK) and has had careers in public sector management and governance in New Zealand. Brenda has also published research in topics ranging from public sector management policy to Māori history and traditional knowledge. Brenda is a trustee for the Tuawhenua Trust of Ruatāhuna, and, drawing on her hobby beekeeping, she was part of founding Manawa Honey NZ, of which she is now CEO.
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