Ever wondered why Manuka Honey is so sought after, highly-priced, and difficult to find in high quality?
Perhaps an insight into how this special honey is made will give you some perspective.
Manuka honey is made through a very delicate process, in a very specific part of the world, from a very specific plant! In fact, if luck is not on our side, some years are not possible for producing manuka honey at all.
Nectar From Manuka Flowers
The production of Manuka honey begins when the Manuka tree starts blooming, which is usually from mid-December to mid-January in New Zealand.
The hives are placed in an area with a high concentration of wild Manuka trees, and the bees are in place and ready to forage as the nectar becomes available.
Foraging bees are known as “worker honey bees” and are generally bees that are in the last half of their adult life.
They visit flowers and gather the nectar, by sucking it out using their proboscis. This is a small part of their anatomy that is very similar to an elephant’s trunk. Using this “trunk” the bees are extremely efficient at collecting the nectar from flowers and plants.
Honey bees are also a species constant, meaning they generally visit the same species of flowers on each foraging trip. However, during a single trip they are able to visit more than a hundred flowers, depending on the bee. Being a species constant is very beneficial to the ecosystem, as the pollen that sticks to the bees goes into other flowers it visits too.
The nectar is held in a sac near the bee’s stomach, which can swell greatly in size, giving the bee the ability to bring back a large amount of nectar to the hive. When full, the sac can weigh up to 85% of the bee’s total weight! Think about how incredibly strong an insect of that size must be to carry 85% of its weight in food.
It’s important to note that this collection of this nectar is only done a few weeks a year! The Manuka flower only blooms during a very narrow window of a few weeks. This is also highly dependent on the weather, so it’s possible that some years there may be no Manuka production at all.
Back To The Hive!
Once the bee has collected enough nectar from the Manuka flower, it will begin the journey back to the hive.
At the hive, the house bees (younger bees) await the arrival of the worker bee to collect the honey contents. Once the worker bee arrives at the hive, they hand over the sac of nectar.
The hive bees’ job is to start moving the nectar to honeycomb cells and depositing it along with enzymes.
The house bees add enzymes and work the nectar, which is then passed in a chain from bee to bee.
This process alters the pH and several chemicals within the honey, resulting in a mixture of nectar and enzymes. However, this is not honey yet! It’s too watery, and the consistency is runny.
Therefore, the bees need to dry the honey to make it preserve for longer.
Drying the honey
For efficient drying, the honey is partially dried and removes the excess moisture as it moves down the line of house bees working the nectar.
Bees are extremely intelligent.
They will actively spread the honey over the honeycomb to increase the surface area, similar to hanging out your laundry in a way that it spreads out nicely in the sunlight. The movement from the bees, especially the flapping of their wings, also aids the drying process. By fanning air around the colony, they can heat it to around 34 degrees Celsius.
This process works to reduce the water content, which increases the viscosity and consistency of the Manuka honey.
The incoming nectar is about 70% water, which must be evaporated down to 20% or lower to turn the nectar into honey.
To achieve this, the worker bees will fan the colony until the moisture content is around 30% to 50%. Then the second phase will start – they will deposit the half-dried honey in small droplets into the cells of the hive and allow them to dry further.
Making the honeycomb
The final step in the production of Manuka honey involves sealing the honey in cells that make up the unique shape of the honeycomb.
Bees understand that honey needs to be preserved – and as I said earlier, they’re very smart!
In order to aid preservation, once they reach the targeted 20% moisture level, they will cap each cell with beeswax, which keeps the honey secure until harvesting. Think of this like putting a lid on a jar.
Part of the reason this 20% moisture limit is important is because it inhibits the yeast spores in the honey from hatching and surviving. Without that, the fermantation process in the honey will begin, which produces alcohol, and this is toxic to bees. Not to mention, the sugars in the honey are an essential nutrient for them!
You should also note during the nectar collection, foraging bees also do something else very important – they add a special substance to the nectar called invertase, and the hive bees also continue to add this substance during the drying process. This invertase breaks apart the sugar molecules in the sucrose-rich nectar, splitting it into fructose and glucose.
Now what does that mean? Essentially, the bees have “pre-digested” the sugars, so it provides them with instant energy.
Fun fact: The same is true for humans! If we eat sucrose, our stomach acids break it into glucose and fructose before we can turn it into blood sugar and then energy. However, when we eat honey, the bees have already done this for us, so we can utilise those sugars straight away.
Finally, the bees add one final enzyme to the honey during this process. It’s called glucose oxidase and this is the enzyme that produces hydrogen peroxide in honey. It is this hydrogen peroxide that remains in the honey until consumption, and provides most honeys with their antibacterial effect.
(Remember, Manuka honey also has NPA, or “non-peroxide activity”, which refers to the antibacterial effects in addition to hydrogen peroxide. That’s what makes it so potent!)
Once the bees have capped the honey cells with beeswax and the honey is fully matured and dried, the harvest can commence.
Harvesting the manuka honey
The beekeepers will remove the honeycomb frames from the beehives and carefully extract the honey.
In most commercial operations, they will use a centrifugal force machine, which spins the frames to remove the honey.
However, in very small operations like on our family farm, you can do this entire process manually.
After extraction, the honey undergoes a series of filtration and processing steps to remove any remaining impurities, such as bits of wax or bee parts. This ensures that the honey is pure and ready for consumption.
Finally, the honey is tested to determine its unique Manuka factor (UMF), which is a measure of its antibacterial potency. Manuka honey is prized for its high UMF, which is attributed to the presence of methylglyoxal (MGO) and other compounds.
You can read more about how manuka honey is graded here.
Then it’s jarred and ready for people like you and me to eat!
Because the Manuka tree’s blooming season is limited, and weather conditions are critical during the 4-6 weeks that the Manuka is typically in flower each year, Manuka Honey is not always easy to find, especially that of high quality.
We recommend always buying your manuka honey from a reputable brand that is UMF certified, to ensure you are getting a pure, authentic, unadulterated honey. We’ve reviewed each of the top brands in New Zealand – you can check out our rankings here!