Steven Brown goes to extreme lengths to keep his bees away from the controversial weed-killer glyphosate.
It takes more than an hour to drive from Christchurch to his site on a hilltop out the back of Ashley Gorge and with the sun shining down through beautiful mānuka trees, it seems about as remote as you can get.
But sometimes, he says, it feels like you can’t go far enough.
“It doesn't matter what you do, because you can't beat the sprays,” he said. “It's a nightmare, it really is.
This is the second part of Thomas Mead's investigation into the industry. The first part is below.
“Nobody wants to do anything about it, nobody wants to listen to it. Everyone talks about being friendly to the bees, but the reality is, it's not in Auckland's gardens, it's actually out where the bees are in the bush, and out on the farms, and it's causing massive problems.”
The weed-killer glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in products like Round-Up, has been found in more than 20 percent of honey tested by New Zealand officials.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) first found small traces of the chemical in 22.3 per cent of samples it took from a range of different honey types from across the country. It later discovered further tiny traces in 11 of 60 mānuka honey products purchased from retail outlets.
While MPI stresses it’s safe to eat and there is no food safety risk, they admit beekeepers have "little practical means of excluding bees from foraging on plants treated with glyphosate", saying the only way to be sure is to place a hive in the centre of a 28 square kilometre spray-free area.
For Mr Brown, who does everything he can to avoid the chemical, it’s incredibly frustrating. The beekeeper claims the chemical can pop up even in remote areas as farmers are incentivised to kill gorse and a small “rogue” percentage don’t care about spraying plants in flower.
“I'm not selling a herbicide, I'm selling pure New Zealand honey, so my business is built on selling something that's absolutely unique,” he said.
“We have the problem that if we complain, we can lose our bee sites, so we won't have anywhere to put our bees, if we don't complain we can lose our beehives.”
And on occasion, he claims he’s even seen hives die after exposure.
“All the bees were dead, it was the corner of three farms, all three had sprayed, we're on all three farmers’ land, what do you do?”
“We just had to take the loss, I lost all my hives, the gear's contaminated, you're going to have to get rid of the gear, and that was months of work, just down the tubes.”
The industry is responding by carrying out tests on its high-value mānuka honey to ensure purity and are now starting to promote themselves as glyphosate-free to reassure customers.
Ashburton’s Midland Apiaries has a high-value premium brand named Puriti and make sure to test every single batch for glyphosate, rejecting any that are contaminated. It’s popular on the international market and a 250g jar can sell anywhere from $33 to $2199.
Their international marketing and brand manager, Adam Boot, says contaminated honey is rare but not unheard of.
“We wanted to take a brand and go above and beyond in all areas of it, to set ourselves as a differentiator from others on the market,” he said.
“I think we've come across it on two occasions, again when we've come across it, it would have been perfectly legal under legal thresholds, World Health Organisation thresholds, but it was traceable.”
The problem doesn’t appear to be going anywhere as MPI is happy with the system as it is, saying a five-year old child would need to eat 230kg of honey a day to reach the World Health Organisation’s daily limit for glyphosate intake.
It has indicated the simplest fix is for producers to blend or dilute contaminated honey to ensure it stays under our maximum residue limit.
However, Mr Brown is also worried about the effect on his bees and claims he’s even seen hives die after exposure.
“I've been doing this since I was 12, I live, breathe, sleep bees, I bee-keep six days a week, my wife will tell you I'm addicted to the hives, I love going beekeeping, and they're like your children,” he said.
“You go out there, and you can't figure out what's going wrong with them, and they just won't get any better, and then you find out they've been spraying gorse around the corner where you can't see and now it's all dead and they're all dying.”
He desperately wants more regulation and says farmers should be educated about the impacts their spraying can have, and should not be penalised for allowing gorse to grow on their farms.
“If you're trying to sell a product that the Government would like to be a billion dollar industry, you need it pure, and it has to be what it says it is,” he said.
“All it takes is for consumers to kick up a fuss and it would change overnight. If people actually wanted it changed, it could change immediately.”
For now, all he can do is continue to drive into the remote hill country, hoping the sprays don’t follow him.