. Facts
Natural beekeeper Rachel Rose is very impressed with how high country beekeepers at TranzAlpineHoney tend their bees. It’s not just what they do, but what they don’t do, that sets its certified organic honey apart.
The Newton family has a thing about bees. Rhoda was the first, back in 1910. Derek, her great grand nephew, is the eleventh Newton beekeeper and he learned the art while just a lad, at the side of his father Allen. After a degree in mathematics and a stint travelling the world, he took over the family apiaries when his dad retired. Now in his late 60s, Derek is the managing director and owner of TranzAlpineHoney and he still gets out in the field to check everything’s being done just as he wants it.
Derek as a little fella, out with the bees with his Dad.
The newest generation weaves another bright thread into this long story. Derek’s step-daughter Victoria is in charge of admin and HR and her husband, Yuriy Soshnikov, is the company’s general manager. Yuriy hails from a small town in the Ukraine where his family has always kept bees. The Ukraine is Europe’s second-largest honey producer, but it’s also totally normal, Yuriy says, for rural Ukrainians to have a few hives; self-sufficiency is a virtue still widely practised.
TranzAlpineHoney is set apart not just by its colourful history. It’s one of only about a dozen New Zealand producers of certified organic honey and has been certified for 24 years.
Organic honey is not easy to produce and it’s no accident that TranzAlpineHoney’s bees live in remote places in the Canterbury high country and the West Coast. Bees can forage over remarkable distances, so organic hives must be at least three kilometres away from any intensive agriculture and surrounded by primarily native vegetation. During extraction and processing, the honey must not be heated above 40 degrees; higher temperatures damage the nutritional value.

The challenge of varroa

Varroa mites are the biggest challenge of all for the current generation of organic beekeepers. The mites were first detected in New Zealand in 2000 and spread inexorably throughout the country. They hide under the capped brood cells and feed on the bees as they pupate. Varroa is thought to act as a vector for other devastating diseases and can overwhelm a healthy hive very quickly.
Many hobby beekeepers, as well as small commercial operators, gave up their bees when varroa hit. The New Zealand (non-organic) industry’s response to this significant threat to bees and export earnings was to treat hives in spring and autumn with synthetic miticides.
Varroa arrived in TranzAlpineHoney’s hives in the ’07–08 season. “It hit everyone hard. We had a choice: fight varroa organically through proper hive management or use synthetic remedies,” says Yuriy.
He says most organic producers chose the second option in order to survive. “We had enough experience, patience and resources to sustain our organic production.”
There are several varroa controls approved for use in certified organic hives, such as strips containing thyme essential oil. Organic treatment is often labour intensive — and time is money.

Healthy bees

There are other aspects of hive management that further set this operation apart. Hives are wintered in beech forests, which produce honeydew, a good food source for bees that produces a distinctive and sought-after honey. TranzAlpineHoney’s beekeepers remove honey from their hives for the last time in mid to late May, while the flow of honeydew continues until June. Non-organic beekeepers typically replace or top-up honey stores with sugar syrup; in contrast, TranzAlpineHoney leaves the last stores of honey in the hive to sustain the bees through winter.
At work in high country apiaries
Last winter was mild and the bees were collecting honeydew again by the beginning of August! The BioGro standard for organic honey stipulates that supplementary feeding may only occur if the hives’ survival is endangered because of ‘extreme climatic conditions’ and that the bees should be fed with certified organic honey or pollen, preferably from the same apiary. Feeding sugar syrup is permitted only in an emergency and requires written approval from BioGro. If this were to happen, the sugar (like all other inputs) must be certified organic.
TranzAlpineHoney breeds its own queens, which mate in the wild (artificial insemination of queens is commonplace in the industry). Remarkably, their queens often live to three years — in exceptional cases their records show four- and even five-year-old queens. This is remarkable longevity; it’s the industry norm to kill queens at 12 or even six months of age and provide a colony with a new queen.
There is speculation that the chemical varroa treatments are reducing the potency of drones (male bees) and in this way are contributing to a decline in queens’ fertility. Its long-lived, productive queens testify to the vigour and health of TranzAlpineHoney’s hives.
It also helps that their bees forage for a range of nectar. TranzAlpineHoney do sell high-grade manuka honey. But while the company does supply an eager market with manuka honey products, “it’s never been the core of our business,” says Yuriy.
“As beekeepers we appreciate all the honeys we harvest. All of them have unique taste, flavour and benefits. We have successfully developed markets for other native honeys, such as rata and kamahi.” The biggest seller is currently a mild rata honey, which is only produced every three or four years when the rata bloom profusely.

Global, diverse business

Fully 90% of its honey goes overseas, primarily to Europe. There is growing demand in Japan, Vietnam and China. But domestic sales have doubled this year — word is getting out about the quality and affordability of its honey.
The business has grown dramatically in recent years. Comb honey joined the product range in 2014. A new processing facility opened in 2016; here TranzAlpineHoney extracts, processes, packs and dispatches all its own honey. Every jar carries a batch code which can be inputted on its website to trace that particular honey back to its source.
Derek Newton in the field.
TranzAlpineHoney has also diversified into health products, including propolis throat sprays, tinctures and capsules, manuka lozenges and honey sachets. Plus, it supplies honey to major organic manufacturers of food and medicine in New Zealand and Europe.
What’s next? Yuriy says they want to simply sustain their current production. He cites increased farming activity, lack of government support and lack of regulation of the term ‘organic’ as key challenges facing the business.
Rachel Rose’s productive and diverse urban block is home to some very happy bees.

TranzAlpineHoney at a glance

· Certified organic by BioGro since 1993
· Based in Ashburton
· 15 employees, including six seasonal/casual staff
· Winners of the Buy NZ Made Hero Award in September 2017