Can you really trace a jar of honey bought in the UK back to the hive where it came from 11,500 miles away?

Manuka Doctor honey is gathered from hives all over New Zealand before being transported more than 11,500 miles to get to Britain – so is it really possible to trace a jar bought in the UK all the way back to where it was harvested from?

To put the company’s “Hive to Home” promise to the test, I bought a jar of honey from and travelled to New Zealand to see if I could find out exactly where it came from…

Testing in the UK

My 250g jar, which I bought at random, is a 100 MGO Monofloral honey and has a batch number on the side which is key to tracking down where it originated from. The first stop on my quest starts very close to home. Like all honey sold by Manuka Doctor in the UK, this batch went through independent testing at the FERA laboratory, near York, before going on sale.

100 MGO Manuka Honey

I call FERA’s head honey scientist Dr Adrian Charlton who explains that the batch my jar came from was tested to check its strength, scientifically known as its MGO level. This check ensures the Manuka honey is just as active when it arrives in the UK as it was when it left New Zealand.

It’s reassuring to know my jar of honey was independently tested once it arrived in the UK. But how did it get here? My next mission is to travel to New Zealand to find out.

Journey across the oceans

It would have taken my jar of honey four to six weeks to travel to the UK by ship but luckily it takes me only 24 hours to fly to New Zealand. There I meet Susan Brock, Manuka Doctor’s quality manager, at the company’s main factory in Hamilton, in the North Island. Susan shows me shipping documents which reveal my pot of honey was one of 12,480 pots which were packed up into a container a few months earlier and shipped to the UK.

Next, I meet operational manager David Eriksen who shows me around the factory at Hamilton. The gleaming sterile steel equipment he oversees is used to carefully process the honey and stir it to give it a smooth, creamy texture, before it is packed into jars just like mine. David has designed much of the automated equipment here himself and it’s so streamlined he can fill up to 110 jars a minute.

I’m joined in the factory by chief technical officer Dr Young Mee Yoon. She explains how my jar of Manuka honey came from a batch that – like all honey handled here – was tested for quality and strength, both when it arrived from the hives and after it was processed.

A document for everything

But how does the honey get to the factory? For the answer, I go back to Susan. For every batch of honey Manuka Doctor makes, she has a heavy large lever arch file full of supporting documentation. These pieces of paper are vital for traceability as they prove the company has checked and signed off every stage of the honey production process.

The folder relating to my jar contains an inch-thick wedge of traceability paperwork. Susan shows me the legal documents which were required before my honey could be exported from New Zealand, including official export certificates and test results from an independent laboratory which checked the honey’s strength and ensured it met the New Zealand Government’s Manuka standard. There are also internal company documents which show how the batch of honey was tracked and tested as it passed through the Hamilton factory.

Finally, she holds up two pieces of paper which contain the answer to my question. One is a document which shows which beekeeper delivered this honey to the factory and another which shows when it was harvested and exactly which group of hives it was collected from. All the documents in Susan’s folder are linked to an official online certification system, run by the New Zealand Government department responsible for food exports, so it only takes her a few moments to pull up a GPS co-ordinate for that group of hives.

“Here you go,” she says, pointing at a map on the screen. “This is where your honey comes from.”

Back to the hive

As soon as I saw the little dot on the map showing the position of the hives, I couldn’t wait to get out there. The records showed it was collected from a remote countryside region near Hanmer Springs, a picturesque conservation area in the South Island.

It’s a two-hour flight and another two hours in the 4x4 to reach the site. I meet Manuka Doctor’s head beekeeper Dave “Sticky” Adams who explains how, under New Zealand law, every beekeeper must be registered and GPS co-ordinates of each group of hives - known as an “apiary” – must be logged. This means it’s easy for both the Manuka Doctor team and officials to keep track of where honey is coming from. Beekeepers in Sticky’s 15-strong team harvest Manuka honey from more than 10,000 hives around New Zealand, all logged via GPS co-ordinates.

The keepers wait for bees to fill specially-designed honey boxes placed at the top of their hives, before taking them away for honey extraction. Wearing a protective beesuit, Sticky shows me how to lift the lid off the hive and examine the quality of the honey inside. This time, the honey isn’t quite ready to be harvested so we carefully replace it and let the bees carry on their work.

It’s incredible to think in a few weeks’ time, honey from this isolated group of hives will soon be ready to be harvested and packed into jars destined for the UK - just like mine.