SOMERSBY, Australia – Beekeepers in New Zealand are seeking the exclusive right to use the “manuka” label for their honey, pitting them against rival Australian farmers over a prestige product that can fetch hundreds of dollars per jar.

Manuka honey takes its name from the Maori term for Leptospermum scoparium, the flowering shrub whose nectar forms its essence. It is found in both Australia and New Zealand.

But Australian production could soon be dealt a heavy blow, with a group of New Zealand producers launching proceedings in multiple countries to register the term “manuka” and claim its exclusive use.

If they are successful, it would be devastating for Australian producers like Ana Martin and Sven Stephan.

Last year they bought land where a crop of Leptospermum scoparium was growing in Somersby, north of Sydney, installing 50 hives on the side of a hill. The couple have almost 300 hives across several locations along the coast of New South Wales.

“Being a beekeeper is a seven-day-a-week job,” Martin said. “And the returns are limited. With manuka though, the margins are greater.”

They sell their honey directly at markets, and increasingly, over the internet. At the end of the first season at Somersby, they collected 2.5 tons of manuka honey.

Online, a 250-gram jar sells for roughly $20-$60, depending on its composition. Some higher end brands can cost hundreds of dollars.

The New Zealand producers behind the move to register the term “manuka” complain the Australians are misusing the name.

“In the mind of the consumer, manuka represents a badge of origin that it comes from New Zealand,” John Rawcliffe, spokesman for the Unique Manuka Factor Association, said. “Manuka is a Maori word.”

Australian producers deny there is a difference in the quality of their honey. “Our honey has the same chemical composition as New Zealand honey,” said Paul Callander, President of the Australian Manuka Honey Association.

An explosion in demand during the pandemic pushed honey exports to a new record in 2019-20, of which manuka honey made up 76 percent.

Beekeepers Martin and Stephan bemoaned the lack of cooperation.

“We could all be making more money if we stick together and start a process for joint certification. Right now there’s 10 times more manuka honey sold in the world than is produced! The amount of counterfeit honey is enormous,” Stephan said.

“Also, the Americans have recently started to produce manuka too. That’s the real threat,” he added.