Bill Savage and Kitt Higgins take a break from their hives

On the next episode, screening 9 September 2018 at 7pm on TVNZ 1:

Gisborne beekeeper Bill Savage got his first beehive when he was a slightly allergic but fascinated 12-year-old and he has loved bees ever since. Now, 44 years later, he still finds his millions of workers intriguing.

“There are 60,000 bees in a hive at the peak of the season and the queen is mother to every one of them – laying around fifteen hundred eggs – per day! That’s quite a feat when you think about it.”

Bill’s a high-UMF manuka honey specialist. UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor, is an industry standard for measuring the anti-bacterial compounds found only in certain grades of New Zealand manuka honey.  

A kilo of one of his higher grades will retail for over $100 and Bill says the demand offshore is growing and growing. But it’s a fickle business. Yields fluctuate wildly from year to year.

“In a good year you can make a lot of money, but in a bad year you can lose a lot of money” he says. 

The East Cape region abounds with wild manuka but Bill has big dreams of increasing quality and volume. He is converting his own 1200 hectare bush block into a mono-floral, high-UMF manuka forest, clearing kanuka and planting thousands of the high-grade trees there every year.  

“But you can’t spot a high-UMF tree by looking at it.”

In summer, he painstakingly collects nectar from his own wild manuka and has a lab analyse it for DHA, the precursor to UMF. Then in winter, he collects seed from those trees identified as high in DHA and grows tens of thousands of new trees each year from that seed.

He’s experimenting with planting systems to maximise nectar production.  

Kitt Higgins and Bill Savage harvesting honey at Ahititi

But he’s more than happy to share his knowledge. “It’s for the good of the industry.”

A tireless advocate for quality and integrity in the industry at large, and in his own practice, Bill says that the honey industry is enjoying ”a goldrush” at the moment as demand soars, evidence for UMF’s health-giving properties builds, and owners of marginal farmland discover the benefits of hosting hives.  

But it’s widely held that the majority of so-called “manuka” honey on the market is fake. What’s more, farmers eager to convert otherwise unproductive land by planting manuka need to understand that manuka – with its brief flowering window – has to be an appropriate variant for the location, or they risk wasting many thousands of dollars.

“Seek advice,” urges Bill. “Getting good advice is the best investment you can make.”

Born and bred in Gisborne, Bill invests back into his local community in a number of ways. His annual landowner payments are in the millions, he gives a lot of contract work to forestry gangs planting and maintaining his forest and he has set numerous locals on a trajectory from novice hive-hand to share-beekeeper.

Share beekeepers manage 1100 hives and take 40% of the profit but, because Bill pays them a salary, they carry none of the risk.  

“It’s good to see people in employment,” says Bill with characteristic modesty. “Honey’s got to be good for this community, good for the region”.

Find out more about Bill's honey business here.

Read more about Unique Manuka Factor here

 

Credits:     

Narrator

Dan Henry

 

Camera & Aerial Photography

Richard Williams 

 

Field Sound

Don Paulin 

 

Editor & Colourist 

Mike Townsend

 

Post Production Manager

Bailey Palmer

 

Sound Mixer

Ian Leslie

 

Music

Stephen Gallagher

 

Production Manager

Robyn Best

 

Research

Vivienne Jeffs 

 

Network Executive

Vicki Keogh

 

Associate Producer

Dan Henry 

 

Director

Roz Mason

 

Producer 

Julian O’Brien 

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