Mānuka Honey and its Sources - Facts, History and Science

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What We Know

Mānuka Honey and its Sources - Facts, History and Science

June 2018

A summary of information available from numerous public domain and published research sources is provided hereunder. More detailed posts, references and sources on the topics described on the following pages will appear in the coming months.

Leptospermum scoparium exists in both Australia and New Zealand. Over time and as a function of different soil types, weather and pollinators etc., the species may or may not have evolved differently in each country. Ultimately, we must rely on what the science tells us about the nectar and the resulting honey that is derived from the nectar of the species found in Tasmania and other parts of Australia versus that found in New Zealand and derived from its own variant of Leptospermum scoparium.

A comprehensive scientific comparative analysis of Australian and New Zealand sourced Leptospermum scoparium and the honey derived from it, is simply not available at this time.

With over 37 years of targeted academic and scientific research on the Mānuka species, (Leptospermum scoparium), i.e. the plant, the nectar the oil, the environmental influences, the honey and its many applications, New Zealand leads the world on this topic.  Research on New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium has identified certain factors that support the uniqueness of New Zealand Mānuka honey.

On a comparative basis, research on Australia’s Leptospermum scoparium species and related topics, is deficient and massively lags the volume nuance and specificity of New Zealand focused research. Australian research on the various Leptospermum species found in that country has accelerated in recent years and some excellent work has resulted.  But, overall results have been mixed and often inconclusive, with some Leptospermum species evidencing zero nectar efficacy (for producing active honey). Many of the species analyzed, require additional sampling and testing for confidence.

However, the results for some Australian species has generated encouraging results and while quick to proclaim these positive results and make unqualified and exemplary and often inaccurate comparisons to New Zealand’s Mānuka honey, Australian honey marketers and the local Australian press have conveniently ignored the full test results.  They have simultaneously and conveniently extended the term Manuka to the entire range of the Leptospermum genus including all those species evidencing zero efficacy.   Consumers need to understand this.

Sadly, in the pursuit of commercial advantage and expediency, Australia has unceremoniously dumped their heritage use of the more colorful colloquial term used for some of their active Leptospermum species, ”Jelly Bush” , in favor of the internationally developed New Zealand brand (and Māori word)  Mānuka.

Just as lemons and oranges are different citrus fruits, and just as Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji and Gala are all very  different varieties of apples, so too, are there different species of Leptospermum and different varieties of Leptospermum scoparium  that  in turn,  allow foraging bees to produce different  types of honey.   The reality is that it will take many more years and an enormous amount of ongoing work, research and analysis, before many of the current claims emanating from Australia relating to their Leptspermum species can be fully substantiated or are exposed as inaccurate speculations, as the case may be.

Meanwhile, the science and facts available on New Zealand’s Leptospermum scoparium derived Mānuka honey are clear.

Subsequent posts on this site will address these and other topics more fully.

What We Know (cont.)

Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) - The Facts

  • It is impossible to identify exactly when the Leptospermum scoparium species evolved. Various academic sources (Couper, ’53,’60, Fleming ’75 Thompson ’89, Dawson ’90, Wardel ’91 et al) cite the species origin in Australia somewhere either in the Paleocene ~66-56 million years ago and/or the Miocene era ~23 to 5 million years ago. Subsequently, (we don’t know when) the species was dispersed to New Zealand where it adapted to certain soil specific environments. The species proliferated significantly following the forest clearing activities of the Māori, which began shortly after their arrival in New Zealand in 1250-1300. Given New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium’s tendency to soronity (seed release in response to an environmental trigger e.g. fire) its distribution proliferated greatly, well beyond the initial soil specific microclimates where it originally established itself.
  • Captain Cook’s first voyage was the only expedition to land in Australia, but that happened after he had first circumnavigated New Zealand, where he landed in several locations. There were no landings in Tasmania where most of Australia’s Leptospermum scoparium is found. Therefore, Banks & Solander, the botanists accompanying Cook on his first voyage could only have found specimens of Leptospermum scoparium (the plant the Māori called Mānuka), in New Zealand.
    • Leptospermum scoparium is the nectar source for New Zealand’s Mānuka Honey.
    • In New Zealand, Mānuka honey only originates wholly or predominantly from the single species Leptospermum scoparium. Only honey derived from this source is considered to be Mānuka honey.
    • Mānuka is a word that has always been used by the Māori people. It is used to describe the single species Leptospermum scoparium. The word Mānuka is found in the Polynesian language. New Zealand was settled by Polynesians, Australia was not. There is no recorded history or evidence of the word Mānuka being used by indigenous people of Australia.
    • New Zealand Mānuka honey is the only honey in the world that is defined scientifically.
    • According to the Codex Standard (the code of conduct established by FAO and WHO to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade), a honey has to originate wholly or predominantly from a particular floral source and display the corresponding organoleptic (using our senses), physico-chemical (using physics & chemistry), and microscopic properties in order for it to be designated by that floral origin (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 2001).
    • In its newly adopted definition of Manuka, Australia includes species that Australian research has demonstrated has zero efficacy for producing active honey. This much broader definition of Manuka includes all species within the Genus Leptospermum and totally ignores the fact that while similar, there is huge variance and inconsistency in the quality of the nectar (and hence the honey) produced from the 83 variants of the Leptospermum species found in Australia.
    • Unlike New Zealand Monofloral Mānuka honey, what Australian producers are calling ‘Australian Manuka honey’ is likely to be derived from many different floral species. That is to say, there is no ‘source purity’ requirement to qualify as what is now being called ‘Australian Manuka honey’.
    • In the Order Myrtales, the term ‘Tea Tree’ is often used to describe many plants in the Family Myrtaceae. This family contains about 150 genera and about 3,300 species of trees and shrubs. Well known to all Antipodean’s is Melaleuca Alternifolia, the species that is found in the Melaleuca Genus, from which (Australian) tea tree oil is distilled.
      • Leptospermum is another of the 150 genera within the Family Myrtaceae.
      • Leptospermum scoparium is one of the 3,300 species within this family that is native to both Australia and New Zealand. Specifically, it is one of the 87 species found within the Genus Leptospermum.
      • Within the Genus Leptospermum, 83 species are found in Australia and 1 is found in New Zealand. (It was thought New Zealand had 2 species, but Leptospermum ericoides or kānuka, is now considered a Kunzea).
    • Because no one can control where or what bees will forage, to qualify as genuine New Zealand Monofloral Mānuka honey, 1 DNA and 4 chemical markers, must be present in defined quantities. No Australian honeys are defined in this way. Australian classifications have only recently been adopted and largely rely on the earlier New Zealand definitions of non-peroxide activity (NPA).
    • The scientific definition of New Zealand Mānuka honey follows ~4 years of research and is a direct response to international counterfeiting and fraudulent misrepresentation of other honeys that were being sold as New Zealand Mānuka honey or as Manuka honey. The initiative was supported by both Government and industry. Australia has is yet to produce equivalent research or definitions.
    • To qualify as New Zealand Monofloral Mānuka honey, the New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries requires the honey be produced in New Zealand and that the following 5 attributes (4 chemical and 1 DNA) to be present:

≥ 5mg/kg 2-methoxyacetophenone,

≥ 1mg/kg 2-methoxybenzoic acid,

≥ 1mg/kg 4-hydroxyphenyllactic acid,

≥ 400mg/kg 3-phenyllactic acid,

DNA from Mānuka Pollen < Cq 36, which is approximately 3 fg/µL.

    • In addition to this test, individual producers use varying methods to further describe the potency or grade of their honey. The most commonly used grading system used in New Zealand is the UMF™ scale. Currently, systems intended to describe the efficacy of Mānuka honey remain varied and inconsistent, with competing methodologies proliferating and adding to the confusion amongst consumers. Many of these approaches mimic or piggyback on the UMFHA of New Zealand’s UMF™ measure and appellation. The UMFHA requires that the unique signature compounds include the key markers of:




Hydroxymethylfurfural must measure < 40mg/kg

The relevant UMF™ grade has different proscribed levels for these markers. The exact scale can be found on the UMFHA website.

    • Rating systems for the broad spectrum of Australian Leptospermum honey is a new phenomenon. Australian rating methods initially rely upon, emulated or copied, variations of the early New Zealand developed ‘Non Peroxide Activity’ (NPA) approach, often in combination with displaying one chemical measure, Methylglyoxal (MGO). The rationale for this is that MGO is an important component that contributes to honey’s activity rating. Displaying the specific MGO level is thought to give consumers a more precise grade than implied MGO levels that are an essential part and are embedded in the UMF™ scale. Transparently imitating and emulating the UMF™ scale, some Australian producers have created and are using the ULFTM grade (Unique Leptospermum Factor) apparently as a way of distinguishing Australian rated honey.
    • This year (2018) the newly formed Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA), (see below) has adopted similar criteria for Australian active honey that closely mimics New Zealand’s Mānuka honey. The AMHA, and not government nor regulatory bodies, is the entity that requires qualifying honey be produced in Australia and be tested to meet the following criteria:

≥ 170 mg/kg (or ppm) Dihydroxyacetone (DHA)

≥ 50 mg/kg (or ppm) Leptosperin

  • According to the AMHA, Australian pure monofloral Manuka must have having ≥ 50% of the nectar derived from one floral source. Based on Australian definitions, “one floral source” means the entire Leptospermum genus, regardless of the quality of any individual species, many of which demonstrate no evidence of DHA.
  • In its 2007 report “Commercial Beekeeping in Australia” the Australian Government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, refers to that country’s Leptospermum derived honey as ‘Jelly Bush’, and NOT as ‘Manuka’.
  • 10 years ago, The Australian Government via its Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in 2008 published its report “A Study of New Zealand Beekeeping - Lessons for Australia”[1]. The objective of the study was to provide to the Australian beekeeping industry the opportunity to learn from the success and failures of the New Zealand beekeeping industry. The study specifically references New Zealand’s well established branding and marketing of Mānuka honey derived from the local Leptospermum scoparium species. There are no references to similar activities by any Australian producers.
  • The 2010 Australian study “The Antibacterial Activity of Honey Derived from Australian Flora”[2] Leptospermum polygalifolium is referred to as “JellyBush” and Leptospermum scoparium is referred to as ‘Mānuka’ further acknowledging and evidencing the different species and their naming conventions.
  • Recently published research, press and industry releases in Australia have begun to use the term ‘Manuka’ to describe Australian honey sourced from ‘Tea trees’ and the entire 83 species of ‘Leptospermum’ found in that country. This includes various specific references to species that were previously known by other names, e.g. Jelly Bush which is (inter-alia) derived from, Leptospermum polygalifolium and Leptospermum petersonii and Leptospermum liversidgei, both known as Lemon Scented Tea Tree.
  • In addition to now calling Jelly Bush and the honey derived from its nectar, the ‘Australian Manuka’, members of the Australian apiculture industry, are claiming that they have the right to brand and market their production of honey derived from the local growth of all Leptospermum varieties, as Manuka. Inconsistency in the Australian claims are apparent as the Tasmanian beekeepers, are claiming that they have the right to brand and market their production of honey derived from the local growth Leptospermum scoparium as Manuka. The Tasmanian’s appear to not be extending their claim to embrace the broader definition so indiscriminately applied by their mainland peers.
  • The Tasmanian claim appears to be based upon the reference in the May 3, 1884 publication in the Launceston Examiner that references Manuka being observed in the wild. This is consistent with the fact that Leptospermum scoparium is found in Tasmania. However, it fails to recognize that in earlier Australian publications, from 1837, there are references to Australian travelers writing home about having observed how New Zealand’s Māori named and referenced ‘Mānuka bush’ resembled some Australian native species. This brings into question the etymology (origin, history, use and adoption) of the word Manuka in Australia.
  • There are many international scientific research papers and reports, including government sponsored items, (too numerous to list here) that specifically reference Mānuka honey and Mānuka oil as being derived only from New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium.
  • European honey bees were likely first imported to Australia in 1810 by Samuel Marsden. These bees were intended for pollination services but the colonies all failed. Then in 1822, black bees were introduced to NSW by Captain Wallace of the ship Isabella. Dr. Wilson RN, introduced the common bee to Tasmania from NSW in 1831, ~8 years ahead of them being introduced to New Zealand by Miss Bumby in 1839. There is no data available that evidences the foraging activities and the floral species visited by these early arrivals. In these early days in the history of Australia and New Zealand, honey was predominantly a sugar substitute as sugar was not produced locally. It was prohibitively expensive to import. There does not appear to be any evidence relating to what specific flora bees may or may not have foraged from during this time. Hence any claims to the contrary that lack clear supporting evidence, can be discounted a speculations and marketing ploys.
  • Indigenous bees exist in both Australia and New Zealand. Those in New Zealand are not known to produce honey and only a few of the Australian indigenous species produce honey. There appear to be no claims and no evidence to suggest that honey derived from the nectar of Leptospermum scoparium have been produced by those bees. However recent studies of honey taken from Australian, sugar bag, stingless bees (Tetragonula carbonaria) during the flowering season for various Leptospermum species, did not contain methylglyoxal, dihydroxyacetone or phenolics characteristic of honeys derived from Leptospermum nectar.
  • No definitive evidence has been published confirming which country first (commercially or otherwise) produced and or marketed honey derived from the nectar of Leptospermum scoparium. It is unlikely that the bees that arrived in Tasmania or that the bees that arrived in New Zealand, immediately foraged exclusively from Leptospermum scoparium to produce honey. It is even less likely that locals suddenly declared the honey to be Mānuka honey.

What We Know (cont.)

  • No definitive evidence has been published confirming the historic use of the word Manuka in relation to honey produced in Australia that is derived from the nectar of Leptospermum scoparium. However, there is abundant evidence of Australian honey that was produced from Jelly Bush and previously known as Jelly Bush honey, as well as other Leptospermum species that are now being rebranded and marketed as Manuka.
  • In the 2005 report “Future directions for the Australian honeybee industry” prepared by The Centre for International Economics and commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, every single reference to Australian Leptospermum honey is prefaced by the term Jelly Bush. The paper references Australian honey company Capilano’s registration of Jelly Bush honey as a therapeutic agent. Australian scientists are quoted referencing “active Jelly Bush honey”. The word ‘Manuka’ is never referenced in the study. This suggests that the term Manuka was not in common use in Australia at the time, or if it was, that the use was considered so insignificant, that it could be ignored in favor of the locally and more commonly used term, Jelly Bush.
  • This report also lists state by state, the dominant and most foraged flora. Eucalypts dominate the list of 50 floral species. Neither Jelly Bush nor Leptospermum appear on the lists. Again, this brings into question the claimed importance and consistent use of the term Manuka as it relates to Australian honey. This also suggests that when bees first arrived in Australia, there is a good chance that they foraged from these other floral sources and not Leptospermum scoparium, but this is a speculation.
  • Without exception, ‘Mānuka’ is defined by all major sources and dictionaries, including the Australia Macquarie Dictionary and many Australian Government agencies, as being of New Zealand and/or Māori origin.
  • Land marks and suburbs found in Australia bearing the name ‘Manuka’ are a consequence of architectural license (Walter Burley Griffin et ors.) and are acknowledged as referencing New Zealand and not as have anything to do with Australian heritage or indigenous use.
  • Supported by research on, applications for, and production of, the honey and related products derived from its native species Leptospermum scoparium, the New Zealand apiculture industry has successfully branded and marketed ‘Mānuka honey’. The New Zealand apiculture industry it is seeking to protect the brand that it has developed by trademarking the term ‘Mānuka honey’.
  • The UK Trade Mark Registry has accepted the term Mānuka honey as a certification mark. The UK Hearing Officer ruled:

    “I have concluded that the term ‘Mānuka’ is a Māori word that is used to refer to the plant know by the botanical term Leptospermum scoparium. The plant is grown in New Zealand and has been known by the common name ‘Mānuka’ for some time. Although the plant Leptospermum scoparium is grown in areas outside of New Zealand, it is known by different ‘common’ names in those territories. Therefore, it is accepted that the term ‘Mānuka’ would be seen as designating a specific plant variety grown in New Zealand.”

    (The Australian Manuka Honey Association intend to file an appeal).

  • New Zealand scientists were the first in 1981, to discover and commence research on the honey derived from the nectar of Leptospermum scoparium.
  • Since the discovery of the unique antimicrobial properties of New Zealand Mānuka honey, there has been considerable research on the New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium species and the honey derived from it. This research is ongoing.
  • Until recently, there has been no equivalent volume and depth of research on Australia’s 83 species of Leptospermum nor the honey derived from those sources.
  • Less than 50% of the Leptospermum species found in Australia have recently (2016-2017) been scientifically tested.
  • Of those tested, some have only had one sample tested. Of those that have had their nectar tested, approximately 75% show evidence considerable variance in the levels of DHA, the precursor chemical needed to produce MGO. Another ~ 25%, exhibit zero evidence of DHA and 3% exhibit low DHA. An additional 31% require additional sampling & testing for confidence.
  • Far from definitively evidencing antibacterial or anti-inflammatory efficacy at the broader species level, it is clear that while some individual Australian species are capable of producing active honey, and others have the potential to do so, there is a large proportion of the Australian Leptospermum species that simply do not.
  • While evidence of DHA is encouraging for Australian producers, it does not translate into the production of honey with the identical characteristics found in New Zealand’s Mānuka honey.
  • DHA is the precursor chemical that bees ingest and that is required for the production of MGO. This is just one of the components found in New Zealand Mānuka honey. Scientific evidence shows that while MGO is an important component, it is the synergy between the hundreds of chemicals (some of which are yet to be identified) found in New Zealand’s Mānuka honey that makes it unique.
  • The catalyst for the urgency and recent flurry of activity driving the Australian research agenda can be directly linked to the international success of New Zealand Mānuka honey and the failure of prior marketing efforts by the Australian apiculture industry (e.g. 2005, Future directions for the Australian honeybee industry).
  • New Zealand must be credited for and accept some of the responsibility for the current Australian research agenda, as much of the research is directly sponsored, supported and funded by New Zealand’s own Comvita. This is a function of Comvita seeking to solve its supply issues by increasing its access to sources of other medical grade honey, i.e. other (non-New Zealand) honey with some of the same characteristics found in New Zealand’s Mānuka honey. To our knowledge, no other New Zealand Mānuka honey producers supplement their supply in this way. We cannot comment on the degree to which (if at all) the Australian sourced honey may be blended with New Zealand sourced Mānuka honey in this process.
  • In New Zealand, the importance of the source nectar from Leptospermum scoparium and the resulting products and commercial applications, were recognized early by the local apiculture industry. The industry, in consultation with the relevant New Zealand Government agencies, subsequently formed the ‘Active Mānuka Honey Industry Group’ in 1997. The successor group is now known as the ‘Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association of New Zealand’.
  • 20 years after the New Zealand initiative, last year, in October (2017), the Australian Apiculture industry decided to copy the New Zealand initiative by forming the Australian Manuka Honey Association (AMHA). That Association’s December 2017 newsletter states that “the first and most important action we are taking as the AMHA is to defend the AUSTRALIAN RIGHT TO USE THE NAME “MANUKA”. Details supporting this ‘right’ are not provided.
  • It is interesting to note that prior to New Zealand achieving commercial success with its Mānuka honey, and until recently, Australian beekeepers appear to have neither objected to nor attempted to, copy the New Zealand product and brand. Based on its stated priority, the AMHA appears to be less concerned with scientific verification preferring to instead to freeride on New Zealand’s efforts.
  • A review of numerous Australian sourced publications and press articles reveals that the Australian apiculture industry is seeking to use the same word and brand, i.e. ‘Manuka’, to reference honey produced from a much wider range of its native Leptospermum flora for a total of 83 species, one of which is Leptospermum scoparium.
  • Expansive and potentially misleading references in the recent Australian publication “The Antibacterial Activity of Australian Leptospermum Honey Correlates with Methylglyoxal Levels:” effectively broadens the Australian definition of Manuka honey under the guise of independent research. Yet at the same time, several of the authors of this paper use the more correct and narrow definition of Mānuka honey (source nectar from Leptospermum scoparium), in a subsequent and newly published research piece. The first paper was commercially sponsored, the second was not. The reader can draw their own conclusions.
  • There is clear scientific evidence that the honeys derived from New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium and from Australian Jelly Bush, or Leptospermum polygalifolium (the plant and product that Australian’s have started to call “Australian Manuka”), are different. Lemons, limes and oranges are all members of the Citrus genus - should we consider them all to be the same?
  • There is insufficient evidence and science on the topic of differentiating the honeys derived from New Zealand and Australian Leptospermum scoparium.
  • There has been a dearth of research on the honey derived from Australian Leptospermum scoparium, whereas over the past 37 years, many hundreds of scientific and academic research studies have been completed and published on New Zealand Leptospermum scoparium and its Mānuka honey. These studies have all have contributed to what we know about this unique gift of nature.
  • In the spirit of cooperation, Australian and New Zealand beekeepers and researchers have (so far) collaborated, sharing their findings and experiences. This tradition of cooperation stretches back to the early days of colonization of both countries and is chronicled in many publications and archived letters. We hope this spirit of collaboration is not damaged by the current debate.
  1. http://www.agrifutures.com.au/wp-content/uploads/publications/08-060.pdf
  2. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0018229&type=printable

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