New Zealand Manuka Honey – A Transformative Experience


Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Discovering a whole new level of food, one of the joys of international travel…

Honey used to be a sticky, gooey substance that other people used in their tea. I only used it to mix with lemon juice if I felt a cold coming on. Otherwise, it would crystallize in its jar, hidden behind more utilized foods on some shelf, unattended, until it was thrown out, months past its expiration date.

After a few months in New Zealand, my perspective of honey has shifted to new dimensions I never imagined. Much like Neo in the movie “The Matrix” – once you’ve been reborn into the world of New Zealand honey, you can’t go back to ignorance any longer. In fact, I’m embarassed at just how ignorant I’ve been for most of my life! I can proudly say I’ve shifted from honey ignorance, to honey confusion to amateur honey connoisseur. At least in my own mind.

What’s So Special About New Zealand Honey?

Don’t know what the big deal is? I didn’t either! Here’s where it starts – have you ever hear of Manuka? Back in the US, I heard some honey with this manuka stuff is supposed to be good for coughs and chest infections. Great marketing, I thought.  I had no idea what a manuka bee was as opposed to a good old-fashioned bee. I wondered if manuka bees might have super powers or something. Now that I’m in New Zealand, it’s more like, “Manuka? Raw manuka? Which kind of manuka?…” It turns out, manuka isn’t a bee, it’s the flower the bees pollonate. Yes, sounds much more logical. However, manuka isn’t a flower like I’m used to – it grows on trees. Somehow, I think of bees pollinating flowers that shoot up straight from the ground. In New Zealand, they use flowers on the manuka tree. Just when I thought I was getting the swing of all things manuka, I learned it can be white or shades of pink. Manuka is the Maori name for this flowering tree.

The manuka tree. Sometimes it’s white….Photography by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

What’s The Big Deal With Manuka Honey Anyway?

In New Zealand, they use manuka honey in everything. And I do mean everything. I had no idea before coming here that manuka honey for the skin was a thing. Did you know it can help with eczema? Now you do. My favorite cosmetics here have been from Living Nature. They use honey in most of their skincare products, and, bonus, if you’re ever in Kerikeri, you get about 15% off everything just for shopping in the store. And, if you hit one of the sales, yowza! Bees are everywhere which is lovely to see. And honey stores are as prolific as Starbucks in New York. Throughout the country, I’ve come across honey hand cream, honey lipgloss, and bee venom serum (love it by the way!) There’s honey glazed ham, beeswax covered cloth to wrap your food, honey lozenges…sorry, I digress.

The big deal about manuka is its alleged antibiotic properties. However, from a practical perspective, I’ll just say the honey in New Zealand not only tastes AMAY-zing, but it’s consistency is also smoother and richer flavored, without all the sweetness, than anything I’ve ever tasted in America. And I’ve bought honey from local farm stores back home, so I’ve tried the non-supermarket brands. It doesn’t seem to crystallize here, and it’s the perfect consistency no matter what temperature.

The manuka tree. Sometimes it’s pink….Photography by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

If that’s not enough to make your mouth water, let’s move on to the FLAVORS of honey. I can’t even pronounce a bunch of them, but suffice to say there are probably almost as many kinds of honey as there are wines in the world. I mean, that could be a slight exaggeration, but there are a lot. So you’ve got honey mixed with different flowers which brings you in one direction. You’ve got manuka honey, and then, you’ve got kanuka honey. I had never heard of it, but, yep, it’s the newest thing to hit the market, though has a lot less science behind it, for now. If that’s not enough flavor for you, then you’re sure to delight in honey mixed with ginger, one of my favorites, or, how about bee pollen, or blackcurrant! I would never have imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would one day breakfast on toast mixed with peanut butter and blackcurrant honey, and yet, it really happened, repeatedly, since discovering it.

OK, But Say More About The Antibiotic Properties

If you’re not yet convinced of my honey expertise, let me guide you into the most confusing part about honey – the grading system. As a consumer, let me be point blank honest – this part of honey confuses the shit out of me. It turns out there are two grading systems, one based on science, the other based on marketing.  One is UMF (Unique Manuka Factor), the other is MGO. MGO stands for the antibacterial compound naturally found in honey, apparently called MethylGlyoxal. The UMF grading system goes from about 5 to 25, whereas MGO can go into the hundreds or even thousands. Though they measure completely different things, which is why it’s so damn confusing, there is a correlation between the two. MGO, however, is easier for the consumer, generally speaking, and lets you know the function of the honey. What the hell do I mean? (I’ve asked that question of a lot of expert bee-keepers I’ve met here.) Thanks to The Bay Of Islands Honey Shop, I got a nice diagram to help you understand:

“Can’t they make this grading system easier?”

As you can see, New Zealand manuka honey can be ingested, or used on the skin. It’s the latter part that’s new for me! Using a manuka honey with an MGO grade over 200, you can use manuka honey for eczema, even pimples, mouth sores, and more. Pretty amazing for a natural substance!

Buying Manuka Honey

Something strange happened during my time in New Zealand – I’m no longer allowed to ship honey outside of New Zealand. I’m not clear why, but honey manufacturers do seem to be able to ship internationally, so let’s hope that remains in effect! However, the price of postage just increased. 🙁

My favorite place to buy honey and fresh beeswax has become The Bay Of Islands Honey Shop.  The first time I went, I learned one of the owners speaks French and has had a very interesting life around designing and bees.  Every time I buy a jar of honey, I think, “there’s no way I will ever finish this,” and yet, I do, and I go back for more. With the warmer weather came the treat of finally seeing the bee colony at the back of the store, complete with a guided tour! Bees are fascinating, and we learned about all the different jobs, the lazy males, and how the girls get shit done! Female power! I did have quite a chuckle at how the hive works. I also learned that the bee-comb perfect hexagon shapes are made by the bees. Pretty magical. On a side note, if you’re at all a fan of Roald Dahl, like “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory,” you should read his short story, “Royal Jelly.” It’s disturbing, yet, well, he has quite an imagination!

bee hive colony

An inside look at a bee hive colony.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

If You Are What You Eat, Then I’m Pretty Sweet!

I now have honey on my breakfast yogurt, honey in my evening tea with water and fresh lemon (which I have almost every night, as opposed to just when I’m feeling a bit under the weather) and honey on my toast. I haven’t tried honey on my face yet, but I intend to. I sometimes eat a spoonful of honey. I’ve even discovered honey with turmeric! (Delicious mixed with warm coconut milk, just suggesting you try it. Go on, you can do it!)

I certainly didn’t expect to develop such a deep relationship with honey, but that’s travel for you. Always connecting you to unexpected flavors and making your life sweeter and richer.

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