PIP COURTNEY, PRESENTER: We recently did a story on the manuka honey industry in New Zealand and now it seems it’s Australia’s turn. Here it was once fed to cattle because of its bitter taste. But jellybush, or manuka honey, could be the saviour of Australia’s honey industry. After years of decline, the industry could have access to a billion-dollar market, with new research identifying the trees which produce manuka honey in every Australian state. Sean Murphy reports.

SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: In the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, they’re searching for one of nature’s miracles. It’s a special tree with the nectar that helps produce manuka honey.

WOMAN: This honey has literally saved lives.

MAN: We don’t end up with resistant infections that are much harder to treat with antibiotics.

SEAN MURPHY: Simon Williams has been travelling around Australia for the past year meeting beekeepers like Mike Howes, searching for leptospermum trees. They’re the source of manuka honey’s amazing healing and germ-fighting abilities and they’ve created a potential billion-dollar industry in New Zealand.

It’s a five-year study which is looking at leptospermum trees in every state. Australia has over 10 times more species of the tree than New Zealand.

SIMON WILLIAMS, RESEARCH CHEMIST: We were trying to cover a lot of area, a lot of species. There’s 86 species. I would love to get to all of them. If I could identify every species and sample it, that would be great. It’d really help build up the knowledge of being able to say what’s good in what areas and what’s active and what isn’t active. It’s just a case of beekeepers identifying the right species in some areas. However, part of the problem with the producing in some of the states like South Australia and Victoria, they’re a little bit drier, so they don’t always have a good flowering year every year.

SEAN MURPHY: Mike Howes has been collecting manuka honey for about 12 years. He was one of the first Australian beekeepers to focus on the honey traditionally known as jellybush and considered near-worthless.

MIKE HOWES, BEEKEEPER: It’s true: like, a lot of beekeepers used to leave as soon as the jellybush flowered because it was too hard to get out of the combs. They didn’t realise its activity. It’s the same within New Zealand, the same thing happened. I think they used to feed it to the cows. It’s great. I mean, as far as beekeeping goes, it changes everything. We can get five times the value for this honey over normal honey and even more.

SEAN MURPHY: As part of his Chemistry doctorate, Simon Williams is collecting nectar samples to confirm and measure the bioactive components that make manuka honey a powerful alternative to antibiotics.

SIMON WILLIAMS: We’re sampling the source, the flower, to determine activity in the trees, but it’s still gonna come down to Mother Nature to determine whether or not there’ll be any nectar produced.

SEAN MURPHY: There’s nothing new in claims about the healing powers of honey. The ancient Egyptians used it and before antibiotics, particularly in World War I, it was widely used. But now there’s some serious science backing the benefits.

At Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital, they’ve done two separate studies on kidney patients confirming that medical-grade manuka honey prevents infection as well or better than antibiotics.

DAVID MUDGE, PRINCESS ALEXANDRA HOSPITAL: Our concerns in patients in the hospital situation is that they’re prone to being colonised with – with germs like multiple-resistance staphylococcus aureus and other bacterial pathogens that are resistant to conventional antibiotic, so, the so-called multi-resistant organisms that are very common in the hospital environment. And it’s these kinds of germs that can be difficult to treat with conventional antibiotics, so if we can prevent the infection with them in the first place by using honey, then it’s better for the patients in the long term.

SEAN MURPHY: Professor David Mudge says kidney patients are vulnerable to infection and applying honey to their dressings is now standard practice.

DAVID MUDGE: It’s quite easy for germs that live on the skin to get through that opening and then into the bloodstream. So the honey around the end of the catheter serves as a barrier to stop the bugs getting into the bloodstream.

SEAN MURPHY: The growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs has put a fresh focus on manuka honey.

LIZ HARRY, MICROBIOLOGIST: While drugs can be very useful at times, honey is a really good topical agent that bacteria don’t become resistant to. So over millions of years of bees making honey, it’s the only food that actually can’t be spoiled. So nature has provided this solution for us that we stopped using because of antibiotics. Now that antibiotics are losing their power, we need to look at other solutions and I think honey is a fantastic one.

SEAN MURPHY: Microbiologist Liz Harry heads a research project involving three universities funded by industry and government. They’re looking at the unique properties of Australia’s manuka honey.

LIZ HARRY: So what we’d like to know is what particular leptospermum species, if any, are better or do they have different types of properties? What we might find, for example, is that one type of leptospermum might have a very high antibacterial activity. Honey has also other properties like healing properties and anti-inflammatory properties. So what we’re interested in is whether some of these honeys may do better at the anti-inflammatory and other honeys may be better at antibacterial or perhaps there’s a few honeys that are best at all three of those activities.

SEAN MURPHY: New Zealand already has a well-established medi-honey industry. The nation’s biggest producer, Comvita, turns over about $100 million a year in medical-grade honey, bandages and dressings. The company says it can’t keep up with demand from hospitals and clinics, but is also dealing with a booming appetite for manuka honey as a culinary product, especially in Asia.

RALF SCHLOTHAUER, COMVITA LTD: Right now, the culinary prices on very pure manuka honey has been coming so high that it becomes very difficult to make a commercial decision to dedicate that honey to the medical use.

SEAN MURPHY: Comvita is negotiating with Australia’s biggest producer, Capilano, to manufacture manuka medical-grade products here in Australia.

BEN MCKEE, CAPILANO LTD: As the growing demand for the medical side of it, that’s where it’s gonna end up. I mean, most of the honey should be heading that way. It’s probably the better use for an antibacterial honey and it’s probably the best value chain for that honey.

SEAN MURPHY: The outlook may be bullish for Australia’s manuka honey, but otherwise, the honey bee industry is in decline. In New South Wales, which has nearly half of all Australia’s registered beekeepers, there’s been a 30 per cent decrease in the number of commercial hives in the last decade.

Microbiologist Shona Blair has spent most of her career working with the honey bee industry, which she says is crucial for two-thirds of Australian agricultural output.

SHONA BLAIR, MICROBIOLOGIST: If we don’t have bees, we lose a vast amount of the pollination services that are going on.

SEAN MURPHY: But according to Shona Blair, the biggest issue for beekeepers around Australia is access to national parks and state forests.

SHONA BLAIR: Beekeepers have businesses to run and if they can’t guarantee that they’re gonna get a honey crop every year, then they can’t run their businesses. So if they can’t get into the state forests or some sections of national parks, their businesses fall over.

SEAN MURPHY: Neil Bingley is president of the NSW Apiarists Association. He says uncertainty about access to state forests and national parks is threatening the industry.

NEIL BINGLEY, PRESIDENT, NSW APIARISTS ASSOCIATION: It’s all up in the air. Like, if we can’t renew our sites, we’ve got no prospects to continue, really. It’s mainly on public lands. That’s still a major component of our production and hive maintenance for pollination.

SEAN MURPHY: This site near Batemans Bay on the South Coast of NSW is one of 14 maintained by the Bingley family for moving their 1,700 hives in search of flowering trees. But Neil Bingley says leases being offered by the NSW Government are too short and a trial auction system made many too expensive.

NEIL BINGLEY: It’s – probably at least 50 per cent of your production can come from forestry, but not every year. Some years, there’s nothing with any buds to flower on the South Coast or any coast, so you may miss it for a couple of years. We had a period back 10 or 15 years ago we didn’t come down here for a five-year stint. But we maintain our sites. Forestry Corporation gets their fee, we maintain our sites, but it’s just not viable to be paying exorbitant fees to maintain the sites, and if we don’t, well, we’re out of business.

SEAN MURPHY: Capilano says the industry needs greater access if it’s to capitalise on the potential of an Australian manuka industry.

BEN MCKEE: This industry has found it frustrating forever and a day that we have to keep fighting for access to national parks and state forests. We’re in an area right now, it’s in a national park. There’s areas within this national park full of fantastic manuka that we could use as a medical product, but we don’t actually have access to it. So it’s quite ridiculous, really, and bees are so important to the environment, they’re so important to the food we eat and pollination and we should be giving beekeepers every bit of access they need to produce their products and keep their bees alive and healthy.

SEAN MURPHY: Ben McKee says manuka honey is already helping raise the farmgate price for all Australian honey and he’s hoping it’ll attract new investment and a new generation of Australian beekeepers.

BEN MCKEE: Our supply has been in decline and we’ve got a real opportunity to sell great Australian honey to the rest of the world and to our own consumers here by ensuring we’ve got a healthy industry to support the demand. Beekeepers don’t have to produce a lot of this honey to get a really good financial return. So, if they’ve got access to this, it can really turn their business from just running along to being a really large business. Like, some of the beekeepers, we’ve paid over a million dollars in one payment because of the amount of manuka honey, so it’s a real game changer for some beekeepers.

SEAN MURPHY: Manuka honey is much stickier and harder to extract than most honey, but a bigger problem for the industry is fraud. By some estimates, two to three times more honey branded as New Zealand manuka is sold globally than is actually produced.

RALF SCHLOTHAUER: Now we’re seeing some real counterfeit. We’re seeing some counterfeit in the marketplace of our brand, of our label. We’re also seeing people blending, we also saw for some time that people have been trying to manipulate the honey, make it darker by heating it and also putting inferior blends together to try to pass off as true.

SEAN MURPHY: Australian and New Zealand scientists have been collaborating on a chemical fingerprint for manuka honey to guarantee integrity in the market.

PETER BROOKS, SUNSHINE COAST UNIVERSITY: Well what we try and do is fingerprint the honey so we can identify which source they’ve come from for two reasons: so that we can say to the consumer, “This is a leptospermum honey of a different activity or different species,” and also protect so that the industry isn’t being flooded with imports of fake manuka honeys.

SEAN MURPHY: Mike Howes says laboratory tests are especially crucial for informing consumers about different levels of bioactivity in manuka honey.

MIKE HOWES: Yeah, I think it needs to be rigorous. I think the laboratories that are testing here in Australia have to have the science behind them and know exactly what they’re dealing with.

SEAN MURPHY: A future honey boom in Australia may not be just about manuka. New research has also revealed that regular Australian bush honey may also have important health benefits.

SHONA BLAIR: Most people now are aware of this thing of your good bugs and your bad bugs in your lower gut. And what we’ve found, that lots of Australian eucalypts will actually push the population in your gut towards more good bugs and less of the bad bugs, so it’s quite amazing that just a tablespoon of honey a day will have a really positive effect on your health because we’re now understanding that your gut bugs are so important for everything else that’s going on in your system.

SEAN MURPHY: New Zealand now has an industry standard for manuka honey and its national honey association is seeking trademark certification of the manuka brand. The industry here is watching those developments closely, but Australia’s manuka honey may have some unique characteristics of its own to market to the world.

BEN MCKEE: I think Australia, as we uncover the different types of species of manuka honey, I think we might find different characteristics with those different honeys, which will make the Australian side of the manuka story really quite interesting as well.

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