How is Manuka Honey Made?

Manuka honey is a type of honey that has gained worldwide popularity due to its unique properties and health benefits. It is produced in New Zealand and Australia, where the manuka plant (Leptospermum scoparium) is found. Unlike other types of honey, manuka honey has antibacterial properties, making it effective in treating various health conditions. However, the process of making manuka honey is not widely known. In this article, we will delve into the intricate process of how manuka honey is made, from the pollination of the manuka plant to the extraction and quality control measures involved.

The Manuka Plant: An Overview

Manuka plants are native to New Zealand and parts of Australia, where they grow in the wild. They belong to the Myrtaceae family and are known for their small, aromatic leaves and delicate white or pink flowers. Manuka plants are typically found in areas with low soil fertility, such as hillsides, swamps, and coastal regions.

The manuka plant is the primary source of nectar for bees that produce manuka honey. The nectar produced by the manuka plant is unique, containing high levels of methylglyoxal (MGO), a compound that gives manuka honey its antibacterial properties. The concentration of MGO in the nectar varies depending on factors such as the climate, soil quality, and altitude.

Manuka plants bloom for a short period, usually in the summer months, and the timing of the bloom is crucial for honey production. Bees collect nectar from the flowers using their long tongues and store it in their honey stomachs. The nectar is then regurgitated into honeycomb cells, where it is transformed into honey through a process of enzymatic digestion and dehydration.

The Role of Bees in Manuka Honey Production

Bees play a vital role in the production of manuka honey. They collect nectar from the manuka flowers and use it to make honey in their hives. The nectar is stored in their honey stomachs, where enzymes break down the complex sugars into simpler forms. The bees then regurgitate the nectar into honeycomb cells, where it is further processed.

Once the nectar is in the honeycomb cells, the bees fan their wings to evaporate the water content, leaving behind a thick, viscous liquid that we know as honey. The bees then seal the honeycomb cells with wax to protect the honey from moisture and other contaminants.

The process of honey production is a complex and fascinating one, and it relies heavily on the bees’ behavior and instincts. The quality and flavor of the honey are largely influenced by the bees’ feeding habits and the environment in which they live. In the case of manuka honey, the high concentration of MGO in the nectar is what gives the honey its unique properties. Without the bees’ role in collecting the nectar, manuka honey would not be possible.

Harvesting Manuka Honey: The Process

The process of harvesting manuka honey begins when the honeycomb cells are filled with mature honey. Beekeepers carefully remove the honeycomb frames from the beehive and extract the honey using a honey extractor. The honey extractor uses centrifugal force to spin the honey out of the honeycomb cells, without damaging the honeycomb itself.

Once the honey is extracted, it is filtered to remove any impurities, such as beeswax and debris. The filtered honey is then stored in containers until it is ready for packaging and distribution.

However, with manuka honey, the harvesting process is not as straightforward. Since manuka plants bloom for a short period and are typically found in remote areas, harvesting manuka honey requires specialized skills and techniques. Beekeepers often use helicopters to transport the beehives to manuka plantations, where they can collect the nectar.

Additionally, manuka honey is often harvested in small batches, which allows beekeepers to ensure the honey’s quality and potency. The honey’s potency is determined by measuring the concentration of MGO, which is a key indicator of the honey’s antibacterial properties. Manuka honey with higher MGO concentrations is considered more potent and valuable.

Overall, harvesting manuka honey is a labor-intensive and specialized process that requires careful planning and execution to ensure the honey’s quality and potency.

Extraction of Manuka Honey: Techniques and Equipment

The extraction of manuka honey is similar to that of other types of honey, but with a few differences. Manuka honey is thicker and more viscous than other honeys, making it more challenging to extract from the honeycomb cells. Additionally, the high concentration of MGO in manuka honey can make it more difficult to process.

To extract manuka honey, beekeepers use specialized equipment such as a honey extractor, which uses centrifugal force to remove the honey from the honeycomb cells. However, since manuka honey is thicker, beekeepers often need to extract it in smaller batches and at lower speeds to prevent damage to the honeycomb.

After extraction, the honey is filtered to remove any impurities, such as beeswax, dead bees, and debris. The filtering process also helps to ensure the honey’s clarity and smoothness.

Once the honey is filtered, it is graded and tested for its MGO concentration. This is done by sending a sample of the honey to a laboratory for testing. The MGO concentration is an essential factor in determining the honey’s potency and value.

Overall, the extraction of manuka honey requires specialized equipment and techniques to ensure the honey’s quality and potency. Beekeepers need to take extra care when extracting manuka honey to prevent damage to the honeycomb and to ensure that the honey retains its unique properties.

Unique Properties of Manuka Honey: Factors Affecting its Potency

Manuka honey is unique among other types of honey due to its antibacterial properties, which are attributed to its high concentration of Methylglyoxal (MGO). MGO is a compound that is present in the nectar of the manuka plant and is transferred to the honey during the bees’ digestion process.

The potency of manuka honey is determined by its MGO concentration. The higher the MGO concentration, the more potent the honey is considered to be. The potency of manuka honey can range from UMF 5+ to UMF 30+, with UMF standing for Unique Manuka Factor.

Several factors affect the potency of manuka honey, including the climate, soil quality, and altitude of the area where the manuka plant grows. Manuka plants that grow in areas with higher MGO concentrations in the nectar tend to produce honey with a higher MGO concentration, making it more potent.

Additionally, the harvesting and processing techniques used can affect the honey’s potency. Beekeepers who take extra care to preserve the honey’s quality during the harvesting and extraction process often produce honey with a higher MGO concentration.

Finally, the storage and packaging of manuka honey can also affect its potency. Manuka honey should be stored in a cool, dark place to prevent the breakdown of MGO over time. The honey should also be packaged in a way that prevents exposure to air, light, and moisture, as these factors can also reduce the honey’s potency.

Overall, the unique properties of manuka honey are what make it such a valued commodity. Its antibacterial properties and high MGO concentration make it effective in treating various health conditions, including sore throat, wound infections, and digestive issues.

Quality Control Measures in Manuka Honey Production

Due to the high demand and value of manuka honey, the industry has put in place several quality control measures to ensure that the honey produced meets certain standards.

One of the most critical measures is the use of the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) rating system. The UMF rating system measures the concentration of MGO and other compounds in the honey and assigns a rating between UMF 5+ and UMF 30+. The higher the UMF rating, the more potent the honey is considered to be.

In addition to the UMF rating system, manuka honey is also tested for purity and quality. This includes testing for contaminants such as antibiotics and pesticides, as well as ensuring that the honey is not adulterated or mixed with other types of honey.

Beekeepers and honey producers also follow strict processing and storage guidelines to ensure that the honey retains its potency and quality. This includes using specialized equipment and techniques to extract the honey, filtering it to remove impurities, and storing it in a cool, dark place.

Finally, manuka honey producers are subject to regulations and standards set by government agencies and industry associations. These regulations ensure that the honey is produced in a safe, ethical, and sustainable manner and that it meets the standards set for quality and purity.

Overall, the quality control measures in manuka honey production are essential to maintain the honey’s potency and quality and to ensure that consumers receive a safe and effective product.

Clinical Nutritionist

Cara Hayes is an experienced natural health practitioner with a Masters in Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics from the University of Sydney. She has been writing for New Zealand Honey since 2020 and loves manuka in her morning tea.