Insatiable global demand for genuine manuka honey has driven up prices and attracted counterfeiters.(ABC News: Dominique Schwartz)
Manuka honey producers in New Zealand have enlisted an Australian scientist to help protect their multi-million-dollar export business from counterfeiters.
The insatiable global appetite for the anti-bacterial honey has driven up prices and attracted fraudsters like bees to a honey pot.
"It's massive overseas in that there's probably two or three times more manuka honey being sold in international markets than is actually being produced here in New Zealand," University of the Sunshine Coast senior chemistry lecturer Dr Peter Brooks said.
"So it's a case of someone taking a $5 honey and selling it then for $50 saying that it's a manuka."
Dr Brooks and New Zealand scientist Terry Braggins were commissioned by New Zealand's Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association to develop a "chemical fingerprint" for manuka honey.
"We are looking for unique compounds in the honey which come out of the nectar so we can trace it back to the floral source," Dr Brooks said.
"So that when you hold another honey up to it, if there's something mismatching from a different floral source, we can pick it out as not being true to type."
The aim is to develop a simple test so that importers and sellers can determine if honey is true to label.
Research vital to safeguard manuka industry
Manuka honey producers say the research is vital to safeguard their industry, which they tip will return $1 billion within years.
"We definitely need to make sure we protect what we are selling and that other people can't continue to rip off manuka honey," Narissa Harvey from Happy Valley Honey, south of Auckland, said.
Production at her family's honey business has grown fifteen-fold over the past six years.
When I said I didn't have what they wanted or could supply [one group&91; actually came back 20 minutes later and offered to buy the entire company.
"In 2008, we were pretty much a boutique company and the production was about 15 tonnes of honey," Happy Valley general manager Mark Harvey said.
"Today we are packing about 225 tonnes and exporting to the United States, Europe and Asia."
Mr Harvey said manuka with the highest anti-bacterial activity of UMF20+ could earn as much as $150 an export kilogram - and potentially double that on retail shelves overseas.
Also in demand is medical-grade manuka which is used to treat burns, ulcers and other wounds.
"We could imagine [manuka&91; becoming the last defence against some bacteria," Dr Brooks said.
"So where you've got recalcitrant wounds ... we could treat those wounds with honey and clear the infection not using the antibiotics that the bacteria are becoming resistant to."
Dr Brooks said the potential market for manuka honey was huge.
"We honestly can't produce enough manuka honey for each year," Moira Haddrell, from Cambridge in the central North Island, said.
"We have people - they literally fly into Auckland airport, they hire or even buy a car and they drive to here in Cambridge and they pull up in the driveway and they want to buy every pot of honey we have to take back to China or Hong Kong or wherever they come from."
One party was determined not to leave empty handed.
"When I said I didn't have what they wanted or could supply they actually came back 20 minutes later and offered to buy the entire company," she said.
Beekeepers wanting manuka honey place their hives near the manuka bushes which grow wild on public, government and private land.
Competition for manuka bush sites 'crazy'
Bees make manuka honey from the nectar of leptospermum scoparium, the manuka bush.
Beekeepers wanting this liquid gold place their hives near the manuka bushes which grow wild on public, government and private land.
Manuka honey producers say the new research project is vital to safeguard their industry.
Competition for sites is fierce.
"There's some crazy stuff - people kicking over hives, poisoning, stealing, fights going on over land and landowners fighting with landowners who are next door neighbours," beekeeper Richard Haddrell said.
But there could be another way.
At Whakatane on the east coast of the North Island, Maori investors are experimenting with a manuka plantation.
Maori-owned company Manuka Bioactives is aiming to get a double harvest: manuka honey, as well as oil from the leaves of the manuka bush to use in anti-ageing and dermatological products.
"From an oil point of view we can plant the trees in a way that we can harvest them easier than in the wild," managing director Jeremy Gardiner said.
"And from a honey point of view we are able to get more trees per hectare and create more flowers per tree and therefore produce more honey."
Australian beekeepers urged to follow NZ's lead
But there is plenty of room for other suppliers and, according to Dr Brooks, Australia is well-placed to dip its hand into the lucrative bioactive honey pot.
"Manuka honey is a class of leptospermum honey - we have some manuka in Tasmania," Dr Brooks said.
But more importantly, he said, there were vast tracts of jellybush along Australia's east coast.
The returns to beekeepers are going to be phenomenal if the recognition and value of the honey is put out there in the marketplace.
Dr Peter Brooks
Jellybush - so-called because of its jelly-like consistency - is also in the leptospermum family.
Dr Brooks said more than 80 different varieties had so far been identified in Australia, and honey from at least seven of those varieties show the same bioactive properties as New Zealand's manuka honey.
New South Wales beekeeper Mike Howes is one of a handful of jellybush honey exporters.
"There's a growing demand because New Zealand can't meet world demand at the moment so we have a lot of enquiries," he said.
"We are exporting already into Japan and Saudi Arabia. China is definitely a market."
Dr Brooks said he believed Australian bioactive honey producers needed to follow New Zealand's lead.
"We've got to catch up by doing our research showing that our leptospermum honeys are actually as active - not competing in the same market place, but be recognised for being Australian leptospermum," Dr Brooks said.
"The returns to beekeepers are going to be phenomenal if the recognition and value of the honey is put out there in the marketplace."