Read HVN’s Chief Scientist Professor Richard Mithen’s fascinating article about the historic association between humans and honey bees.

By Professor Richard Mithen, HVN Chief Scientist

The crops and livestock that underpin the economy of Aotearoa New Zealand were largely domesticated elsewhere in the world, and brought to this country by successive waves of immigrants. 1 From the first Māori settlers that brought kūmara and other sub-tropical crops, through to the phases of European and Chinese migrants of the 19th and 20th century who brought temperate forages, fruits, cereals and livestock. There has been little development of the native New Zealand flora, despite its uniqueness 2 and associated Mātauranga Māori. In this context Mānuka honey 3 is an exception – an exemplar of the economic potential that novel food products developed from the native New Zealand flora may have 4, and which can convey messages of health and well-being, provenance, and the maintenance of biodiversity and sustainable agroecosystems. However, it takes two species to make honey, the nectar sources and the bees, and while there are many native Aotearoa sources of nectar, the honey bee is a recent immigrant to this country.

There are 20,000 species of bees in the world, but only one of these – the western honey bee, Apis mellifera – has been widely domesticated and used for both domestic and commercial honey production. The majority of bee species live solitary lives, but there are three types of bees that live socially in communal nests in which they store honey. Honey bees (Apis species) are all found in South East Asia 5, with the exception of the western honey bee which has a native distribution of western Asia, Africa and Europe; bumble bees are found naturally across Asia, Europe and the Americas, but not in Australia and New Zealand; and small stingless bees (Meliponini species) are found in the tropics and sub-tropics, including Australia. Stingless bees have also been used for honey production, notably by the ancient Mayan civilisation of the Yucatán peninsula.

New Zealand has 28 native bee species all of which are solitary, and 13 introduced species, including the western honey bee and four species of bumble bees, all of which are expertly described in a monograph by Dr Barry Donovan – the New Zealand (and world) bee expert.6

The association between humans and honey bees goes back several millennia. Hunter-gatherers have and still raid wild bee nests for honey, sometimes in collaboration with their avian honeyguides. 7 The first evidence of domestication of honey bees is from wax residues within the pottery vessels of the first Neolithic farmers that spread into Europe as the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, 8 notable cave paintings from about 8,000 BP*, and stone engravings of bee keeping from the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, which date from 4,000 BP*. 9

Left: Painting in Arana Cave Spain of gathering honey from a hive on a cliff face c 8,000 BP

Right: Engraving of bee-keeping and honey harvesting from the solar temple of Abu Ghorab in Lower Egypt c 4,000 BP

As Europeans began to disperse themselves to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand from the 16th century onwards they took honey bees with them. The first honey bees in New Zealand were introduced in the mid-19th century, both through largely unsuccessful attempts to bring them on the long sea journey from England packed in barrels with ice to keep them relatively dormant, and more successfully by importing bees from Australia where they had been introduced in 1822. Notable importers of bees were Mary Bumble, who had accompanied her Wesleyan missionary brother to New Zealand and arrived at Mangunga in 1839 via Sydney with two skeps of bees (reputed to be the first in New Zealand); Eliza Hobson, wife of William Hobson the first Governor of New Zealand who co-drafted Te Tiriti o Waitangi, who imported further bees from Australia in 1840; and James Busby, the ‘British Resident’ who drafted the 1835 Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, and also co-drafted the Te Tiriti o Waitangi, who brought three further hives of bees in 1843 from Australia, one of which he gave to William Cotton, the curate of the first Bishop of New Zealand – and an enthusiastic apiarist and notable teacher of bee-keeping to Māori.

William Cotton had developed an interest in bee-keeping as a young man while studying mathematics and classics at Oxford University prior to his ordination in the Anglican church in 1839. He had encouraged ‘cottagers’ to take up bee-keeping through his ‘Letter to Cottagers from a Bee Preserver’, and subsequently through the publication of his bee-keeping manual ‘My Bee Book’. This book included a description of his scheme to transport several hives of bees to New Zealand to where he would depart as the newly appointed curate to the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, George Augustus Selwyn. On December 26th, 1841, the three-masted barque Tomatin set sail from Plymouth to New Zealand, with the Bishop and his wife and child, and his accompanying entourage, including Cotton, assorted livestock and several hives of bees packed into hog head barrels.

The Bishop’s party arrived at Te Waimate Mission inland from Bay of Island in April 1842. During the long voyage, the Bishop and his curate became fluent in te reo, taught to them by George Rupai, a young Māori boy who has been attending school in England and was now returning to his homeland. Cotton’s bees did not survive the journey, and he had to wait a further two years before he finally received his hive of bees from Busby. Over the next four years, he enthusiastically taught Māori and European settlers the art of making straw hives, bee-keeping and collecting honey, and wrote two guides, one in English ‘A Manual for New Zealand Beekeepers’ and, one in te reo ‘Ko nga pi’. 10 Cotton returned to England in 1848, eventually becoming the vicar of Frodsham in 1857, where he had engraved by the main door of the vicarage ‘Haere Mai Te Manuwiri’.11

Whilst it was William Cotton who introduced bee-keeping to Māori, it was another immigrant, Isaac Hopkins, who is credited with the beginning of commercial bee-keeping, as described in his excellent memoir ‘Forty-two years of bee-keeping in New Zealand’. 12  At the time of his arrival in New Zealand in 1865, bee-keeping would have been practiced as it had been for hundred (maybe thousands) of years. Bees would have been kept in skeps or simple wooden hives, and when it was time to harvest the honey the hives would have been held above fires to which sulphurous rags had been added. The smoke would asphyxiate the bees enabling the honeycomb to be harvested. 13  The great technological advance in bee-keeping was made in the United States by the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth of Philadelphia. Langstroth had discovered the importance of the 6.4 mm ‘bee space’, the minimum distance across which bees cannot make ‘bracing’ honeycomb. This led to the invention in 1852 of the ‘Langstroth hive’ with removable frames. This revolutionary design enabled the beekeeper to remove frames full of honey, extract the honey and then replace the empty frames with minimum disturbance to the bees. This design of beehive has underpinned the global honey industry, and remains largely unchanged.

Hopkins obtained plans for the Langstroth hive from contacts in the United States and began their manufacture in Thames, establishing a business to supply hives and other bee-keeping equipment throughout New Zealand and Australia. Moreover, Hopkins imported ‘Italian’ and ‘Holy Land’ queen bees into New Zealand and developed a queen rearing apiary to supply these more productive queens to bee-keepers by post. In 1882, Hopkins passed his apiary and queen supply business to the Bagnell brothers & Co, and relocated to Matamata where he established what could be regarded as New Zealand first commercial apiary on the estate of Josiah Firth, tempted by the expanses of white clover for the bees to forage upon.12

Cotton’s diagram of how he planned to transport bees from England to New Zealand.
The bees are packed with felt and are above ice. The taps are to run off water as the ice melted. From ‘My Bee Book’, page 392.

The introduced honey bees of course did not stay within their straw skeps or wooden hives but soon spread throughout New Zealand and established feral populations with probable impact upon the New Zealand ecosystem, but one that remains difficult to quantify. The native New Zealand flora and fauna has several interesting features: one is the absence or scarcity of long-tongued pollinating insects, such as social bees and hawkmoths, 15 and another is the predominance of plants with relatively small yellow and white symmetrical flowers, and the lack of plants with more complex flowers which require specialised pollinators such as legumes. 16 The large showy flowers of trees such as rewarewa, pōhutukawa, rata, kowhai and kotukutuku are increasingly thought to be (or to have been) largely pollinated by nectar-feeding birds such as tui, korimako, tīeka and hīhī, in addition to pekapeka-tou-poto (short tailed bats), 17 and only to a lesser extent by assorted non-specialised insects.

The introduced honey bees foraged on the flowers of imported plants, such as white clover, and in doing so led to the clover setting seed for the first time in New Zealand, negating the need to import seeds each year as had been the practice. The bees also foraged on the plentiful nectar of flowers of the native flora, which may have not been so positive for the native avian pollinators. The New Zealand banker and author Alexander Kennedy, noted in his 1873 book ‘New Zealand’:

The Maories [sic], who are distinguished for the habit of accurately observing the facts of nature,
have remarked that some of the small native birds are gradually disappearing,
and they allege that those birds are in the habit of gathering their food
by dipping their long tongues into the blossoms of native trees,
but that since the introduction of bees the latter have likewise sought the same blossoms for honey,
and while concealed in the flower have stung the tongues of the birds, and so caused their death.

The actual impact of the introduced bees on the native birdlife of New Zealand is of course far less than that due to introduced mammals such as rats and stoats, and widespread deforestation to make way for livestock. To what extent honey bees have had and continue to have impact upon native bees and other non-specialized insect pollinators is much debated, but with little quantitative data. 19

Since the arrival of the varroa mite in New Zealand in 2000, feral bees have become relatively scarce, but the number of commercial beehives have continued to rise and is now over 900,000 20 – maybe equating to about 36 billion bees. The increase in hive numbers has largely been driven by the demand for monofloral mānuka honey, which commands significantly higher price than either multifloral mānuka or non-mānuka honey. There is currently an oversupply of other types of honey and an associated reduction in price, which is now below the cost of production for many bee-keepers. 21 The continued strength of the monofloral mānuka honey market is largely sustained by the requirement for its authentication in an MPI-recognised laboratory 22 and the UMFTM and MGOTM industry grading systems which indicate the methylgloxal, dihydroxyacetone and leptosperin content that may underlie its putative antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activity. It is conceivable that further studies on other native monofloral honey such as rewarewa, rata and kamahi, and honeydew honey from the southern beech forests of the South Island, may identify novel biological activities and chemical biomarkers that could authenticate and add value to these honeys.

It is interesting to speculate whether the thoughts of those involved with the drafting of Te Tiriti o Waitangi may have occasionally turned to their newly introduced honey bees buzzing in their gardens, without any realisation of how important honey would become to New Zealand – a highly valued food product from a partnership between an immigrant and the native.

* Before Present

Note: Any views expressed in this article are solely those of Professor Richard Mithen.

  1. A notable exception is the endemic green-lipped (or greenshell) mussel Perna canaliculus.
  2. Approximately 80% of the New Zealand flora is endemic (i.e. does not occur naturally elsewhere)
  3. Mānuka is the Māori name for Leptospermum scoparium, which is native to New Zealand and also to South Eastern Australia including Tasmania. The long-running dispute over the trademark of the name ‘Manuka honey’ and whether Australian and UK honey from L.scoparium and other Leptospermum species can be sold as ‘Mānuka honey’ continues.
  4. The value of New Zealand honey exports are NZ$ 425M in 2020, with about half the volume being monofloral mānuka honey which commands a significantly higher price than either multifloral mānuka or non-mānuka honey
  5. In addition to Apis meliifera, there are seven species of honey bees in Asia. One of these, Apis cerana has been domesticated. It has also recently become established in Australia
  8. Roffet-Salque et al (2015) Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers. Nature 527 226-230 doi:10.1038/nature15757
  9. Crane, E. The World History of Bee-keeping and Honey Hunting (Duckworth, 1999)
  10. The full name is ‘Ko nga pi’: me nga tikanga mo te tiaki i a ratou, mo te mahinga i to ratou honi, i ta ratou ware’ Bees: and methods for their care, for the preparation of their honey, and their pitch
  11. ‘Welcome to the stranger from afar’
  12. Forty-two years of bee-keeping in New Zealand, 1874-1916. by Isaac Hopkins. First published in Auckland in 1915, and subsequently republished by Forgotten Books.
  13. William Cotton was an advocate of abandoning the ‘brimstone pit’ and using fumes from burning puff balls to anesthetise the bees so that the honeycomb could be recovered, and the bees returned to their hive to start making more.
  14. Forty-two years of bee-keeping in New Zealand, 1874-1916. by Isaac Hopkins. First published in Auckland in 1915, and subsequently republished by Forgotten Books.
  15. The convolvulus hawk moth, Agrius convolvuli or hīhue is the only resident New Zealand hawk moth. Its large caterpillars can be a pest on kūmara. The taro hawk moth, Hippotion Celerio is an occasional migrant to New Zealand. There has only been a single specimen of the Comprosma hawk moth, Cizara ardeniae in New Zealand from 1982 (now in the Otago museum), and a single specimen of Daphnis placida from 1856 (now in the Auckland museum).
  16. There are only four genera of leguminous plants in New Zealand, much less than may be expected on the basis of its total number of plant species. Charles Darwin remarked on the ‘remarkable absence’ of legumes in New Zealand in a letter to Joseph Hooker in 1858 and made an association with the lack of bees that are needed for pollination of the specialised flowers. Charles Darwin’s Letters. F Brukhardt (ed) Cambridge University Press 1996 p 186
  17. In most of the New Zealand mainland the native honey feeder birds and bats have disappeared, but partly been replaced as pollinators by rats and silvereyes (who arrived by their own accord in New Zealand in the 1850s)
  18. New Zealand by Alexander Kennedy, Longmans, Green & Co. London 1873
  21. The export price per kilo in 2019 for monofloral mānuka was $54, for multifloral mānuka $31.10, and non mānuka $20.62
  22. The MPI authentication tests for monofloral and multifloral mānuka honey is based upon the presence of four chemical entities and mānuka pollen