It was a hot, windy January day as our helicopter made its way from the Hawke's Bay region of New Zealand, along the coast and over the vineyard-laden hills and golden plains surrounding Lake Tutira.
Hawke's Bay is perhaps best known as the North Island's foremost wine-producing region as well as for its beautiful beaches and vivid landscapes. I was visiting as a guest of Kiwi-based wellness company Comvita to learn about honey — specifically manuka honey, which has become one of the country's largest premium wellness exports.
I tried to keep it together when our pilot banked a sharp right turn and landed in a windswept field straight out of Middle-earth. Safely earthbound once again, I immediately geared up with a professional-grade beekeeping suit and made my way to the hives. Did I mention I'm allergic to bees?
Home to one of Comvita's largest bee plantations, bees thrive in this region due to the manuka plant, which produces delicate white-and-pink flowers and flourishes across New Zealand and parts of Australia.
"It's more intriguing and fascinating when you think about the scale of what's really going on here," Comvita co-founder Alan Bougen said as he lifted a nearly 25-pound honey box brimming with bees and their freshly produced honey. "Bees collect all sorts of things. They collect water, resin and sap from trees and we call that propolis, and they potentiate the stuff to give it very high antimicrobial and antiseptic properties. And we use it in a range of products from toothpaste to cough syrups and throat sprays. It's a natural antibiotic."
Honey toothpaste? Now I was intrigued.
These are uncertain times for honey production. Colony collapse disorder has been called a global epidemic. Meanwhile, New Zealand's honey exports have skyrocketed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, much of which is thanks to this manuka plant along with three letters: UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor, a trademark on each jar of manuka honey, which lets consumers know that it's the real deal as far as quality and efficacy.
Comvita co-founder Alan Bougen handles a frame from a beehive. Photo Credit: Michelle Gross
The next day, after a quick stop at one of Comvita's extraction plants to get an up-close look at how their honey is inspected and tested, we began to make the five-hour drive north past the geothermic region of Rotorua to the beachside hamlet of Mount Maunganui. My honey-fueled adventure continued in earnest the next morning after a good night's rest and a solo, sunrise hike for some Instagram-worthy snaps from the top of the mountain.
At Comvita headquarters in Paengaroa we learned from beekeepers, registered nurses and research techs about what makes Comvita's honey so special.
"This is not your grandma's kitchen-cupboard honey," said Heidi Darcy, a registered nurse and Comvita's intellectual property and science communication manager. "All honey is antibacterial and can assist in treating wounds to some extent, but manuka is special."
Darcy explained how manuka honey is being used for everything from treating topical cuts, burns and common colds to clearing acne and for general skin care and how it's sold in health-food stores around the world. It all sounded so good, but I was still skeptical.
"There are a number of factors that contribute to the success we've seen here, but it really begins with the manuka bush itself," said Cliff Van Eaton, author of "Manuka: The Biography of an Extraordinary Honey" and Comvita's leading manuka honey beekeeper. "We're talking about a plant that's been around for thousands of years dating back to the Maori people who lived here."
I had a chance to explore the Comvita Visitor Centre, which is open to the public for daily tours, before treating myself to a manuka honey-infused smoothie at the cafe and stocking up on manuka throat lozenges, honey-based adhesives, bee pollen and, of course, a couple jars of UMF-certified manuka honey.
Next it was off to visit the geysers and geothermal valley of Te Puia. Home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, we were treated to a powhiri, a traditional Maori welcome ceremony, before heading into the geysers for oysters and kawakawa extract as our dinner finished cooking via the geothermal water below us.
A few weeks after my adventure Down Under, I put the Comvita manuka honey to the test after cutting my hand in the kitchen. After two days of using honey adhesive bandages to treat my wounds, my cuts were all but gone and I swore I would never doubt the power of manuka again. As for the honey toothpaste, that's not bad either.