Comb honey in the North Island


9 days ago

Enraptured with a new enthusiasm for honey and the magical bee, I visited the local Arataki Honey factory. I didn’t anticipate being able to buy comb honey there, as it hadn’t been listed on their website’s product list, but I was resolved to ask where I might find some. Surely they’d know. It’s their business to know.

I was delighted to sample different honey types (Manuka remains my favourite), exfoliate my hands from a Manuka sugar scrub tester pot, and inhale deeply of the many beeswax candles. I came away with a pot of Manuka honey, a beeswax candle, and a box of chocolates with Manuka honey filling…which bizarrely tasted similar to Caramellos.

When I asked the lady at the counter where I could get comb honey around here, the clouds rolled in, the sky grew dark, and grieving violin music accompanied the scene as her face grew sad and she said, “You can’t.”

She paused for what I can only assume was dramatic effect, before continuing, “We’re not allowed to sell it now, in the North Island — just because once some illegal amateur hobbyist beekeeper didn’t test his comb honey before he sold it, and a bug in it paralyzed someone. Despite no professional beekeeping establishment having allowed this bug to the sales stage, MAF decided to veto every North Island beekeeper’s right to sell comb honey. You’ll have to get it sent up from the South Island.”

I was grieved and horrified. How dare that selfish beekeeper ruin it for everyone! How dare MAF put the axe on all responsible establishments, instead of reasonably passing a new law requiring specific tests! What gross injustice!

Later that day

I needed comb honey. Needed it. Even at exorbitant prices. I was delighted to find some for sale on TradeMe, more affordable than the other comb honey listings, from a beekeeper in Taranaki. I bought it.

Still later that day

Then I realised that Taranaki is in fact in the North Island — in my impatient glee, I’d been thinking of Timaru, which is safely in the South.

Would I not be able to eat this honey when it arrived? Would it kill me? Had I just been sold black market honey?

That evening

I needed to investigate this issue. I needed the injustice explained. More importantly, I needed to know if I could eat my soon-to-arrive comb honey!

Arataki Honey Lady had sounded grievously sincere as she gave her report, mourning the loss of comb honey herself. But despite the sincerity, I couldn’t find any verifiable support for her story…apart from comb honey being strangely absent from local retailers. I checked MAF’s website documentations in regards to honey production and restrictions, and found nothing of note. I then got Google to hunt for news reports about someone inflicted with paralysis from infected honey. Still nothing.

Surely such a cruel accusation couldn’t be entirely fiction, could it? Who would make up a story so horrible? Even if mistaken in the particulars, she had to have a reason for thinking the story true. I wanted to know what it was.

I emailed MAF with my inquiry, repeating what I’d been told, and asking for comment on its accuracy. Would I really not find comb honey for sale in the North Island? Or if I did, would that sale be illegal?

3 days ago

MAF was silent. I didn’t suspect this to still be within normal response time for them, because they’d responded within a day to a query I’d sent last year, on an unrelated subject. Was their silence a telling factor? Or were they surprised by an outrageous story? Or was my email being shunted from department to department, nobody wanting to deal with it?

Unwilling to wait further, I sent the same query to the National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand. Maybe they’d be more inclined to help someone wanting to support their industry.

2 days ago

My comb honey arrived. It looked beautiful. It tormented me. I put it in the top of the pantry where I wouldn’t see it so much, to wait until I had an answer to my inquiries.

This morning

I’d still heard nothing from NBANZ, but received a response email from MAF, which I was delighted to find very comprehensive and informative.

The paraphrased short answer:
No, it’s not true.

The actual answer:
“The situation regarding the supply of comb honey in New Zealand is as a result of an incident involving the sale of honey that was contaminated by the natural toxin tutin in the Coromandel in 2008.  Around 20 people were seriously affected after ingesting the toxic honey with some lapsing into a coma.  This toxin has caused deaths in New Zealand since its effects were first noted in the late 1800’s.  As tutin is a very powerful toxin, the level of contamination that can cause toxic effects in humans is quite low. Because the effects are very serious, MAF determined the acceptable level of tutin contamination that would not pose a health risk, then instituted a food standard to manage the potential contamination of New Zealand honeys to minimise further poisoning incidents. … This standard put in place options that honey producers could take to avoid contamination as well as a limit on how much tutin is allowed in honey to ensure honey does not pose a toxic risk. … This standard applies to all honey produced in New Zealand including comb honey.  To produce toxic honey, the following conditions are required:
*    significant concentrations of tutu bushes; and
*    high numbers of vine hoppers (Scolypopa australis); and
*    the presence of honey bees (Apis mellifera)

“It happens to be easier for South Island producers to meet the standard for comb honey because the vine hoppers that cause the problem are only present in the top part of the South Island.

“There is no ban on comb honey production in New Zealand, or veto applying to its production in the North Island. However, comb honey is more likely to contain high concentrations of tutin than extracted honey so additional precautions are required for its safe production. It appears from your enquiry that some North Island honey producers have simply chosen not to continue to produce comb honey so as to avoid the need to take those additional precautions as set out in the Food Standard.”

Right now

I’m eating my comb honey, feeling my enjoyment of it is well earned. Mmmm….


1 Comment

  • Mum
    20 Oct 2011

    You are so thorough – good girl – and you have received your reward.

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