Honey wars: Pollen war breaks out between landowners

A pollen war has erupted between two landowners in the lower North Island – exposing an industry-wide problem as demand for Manuka honey soars.

A pollen war's erupted between two landowners in the lower North Island. Source: Fair Go

Chris Walsh bought into a block of Manuka-covered land just out of Whanganui two years ago, and the hobby beekeeper was keen to take advantage of the near-80 hectares of Manuka scrub on site.

He started placing beehives on his land, according to the industry-standard – which is considered one hive per hectare of Manuka.

But Chris' neighbour also has a stand of Manuka – around 20 hectares – and he too has hives on his property.

"Yeah it's a bit of a funny one, because he talks to us about being neighbourly but we think he sort of needs to take a look in the mirror," Chris told TVNZ's Fair Go.

That neighbour is Russell Johnson, who has a long-standing agreement with Comvita. The company owns the hives on his land and collects the honey in return for a lease payment.

Under the hive-per-hectare ratio, Russell would have just 20 hives. Instead, he has more than 200. Russell says this is because he's not just targeting Manuka, but all honey nectar – including thistles and clover.

And this is where it gets a bit sticky.

"Their bees are freeloading off our resource," says Chris.

Because 40 of the hives are right on the boundary – and right up next to Chris Walsh's Manuka.

It's an allegation Russell firmly denies.

"When there's a shared resource… What do you do? You work out a way to share it. That's what you would do," he says.

Russell Johnson says bees don’t like Manuka, and his hives are fed mostly by the surrounding food on his land, not from flying over to his neighbour's.

Gold fever

Gold fever has hit New Zealand in a big way since sales of Manuka started taking off, thanks to its health properties.

Comvita values Manuka sales for nearly half its annual sales – and the price it pays at the farm gate has risen between 10 and 15 per cent annually in the last five years.

That's meant a lot more people trying to get in on the action – and the issue of boundary stocking – putting your hives right next to your neighbour - has come to the fore.

Comvita says the issue affects the company "as much as any beekeeper" and that "disputes over resource access is an issue in the industry".

The company says it considers this case to be one between landowners, but says these hive sites are historic and equally distributed across the property – and notes that half the hives were moved away from Chris' boundary as a sign of goodwill.

"We also further agreed to review the hive siting… with both landowners, at the end of the honey season," it said in a statement.