Bay of Plenty
Jo-Marie Baker finds after a visit to Experience Comvita, we have a lot to thank the humble honey bee for.
For a creature so small, the humble honeybee is hugely impressive. If you love to learn, as much as see and do things while on holiday, Experience Comvita should be top of your list of places to visit in the Bay of Plenty.
Their stylish visitors’ centre, cafe and retail store sits beside Comvita’s natural health headquarters in Paengaroa, about half way between Tauranga and Whakatane. Guided tours are available on the hour, seven days a week, although people are encouraged to join the 11am, 1pm or 3pm tours in case private group bookings have been made.
Comvita’s Experience manager Drew Copestake is one of five tour guides and his enthusiasm for the honeybee – and the precious manuka honey it produces – is infectious.
“One in every three mouthfuls of food we eat comes courtesy of the honeybee’s pollination services,” he enthuses. “Most of our fruit, veges, grains and seeds need bees. Imagine our supermarkets if bees didn’t exist – there would be nothing there! Even our denim jeans require bees to pollinate the cotton.”
A picture of Comvita’s founder, Claude Stratford, stands at the tour’s entranceway. He spent his life uncovering the anti-bacterial and antiinflammatory properties of manuka honey and other bee products like propolis and royal jelly. He lived to be almost 103, so clearly he was onto something.
Following the sound of buzzing bees, Drew leads me into Comvita’s very own indoor forest, where he explains the healing powers of native plants such as kowhai, pohutukawa and of course, manuka. Clever ‘scent boxes’ allow you to breathe in the smell of each flower while the sight of dappled light and sound of birdsong overhead completes the immersive experience.
Next up is the ‘manuka grove’ where everything is super-sized to showcase our world from a honeybee’s perspective. Giant wooden hives are stacked one on top of the other, while UV light makes the florescent manuka flowers stand out like shinning beacons.
Slow motion videos demonstrate the honeybee’s incredible anatomy: Two separate sets of wings join together when flying to make one enormous wing which beats 200 times a second; tiny body hairs help it collect twice its body weight in pollen before flying up to 3km back to its hive; bees have a total of five eyes and can also smell through their feet. Who knew?
We then step inside Comvita’s ‘virtual beehive’ – a room decorated with hexagonal walls which is specially heated to replicate life inside a beehive (although not to the
exact temperature, as 36°C would be a tad uncomfortable). A floor to ceiling video screen takes us inside an intricate world where queen bees rule and male ‘drone’ bees die as soon as they’ve mated.
Adults and kids of all ages will find this bit fascinating – the hierarchy of a beehive and the multitude of jobs honeybees perform is impressive given they can’t actually see each other inside the pitch black hive.
In fact, the only way they do communicate with each other is by performing a “waggle dance” where the direction of their wiggling torsos, combined with the length and speed of their dance, tells their fellow bees exactly where to find the best nectar and pollen in relation to the sun. A ‘dance battle’ can break out inside if the beehive is surrounded by plenty of flowers!
One of the tour highlights is watching the beekeepers in action via a virtual reality headset. You feel as though you’re flying across remote bush in the North Island’s Kaimanawa Forest to visit beehives and check on the honey season’s progress. If you haven’t worn a virtual reality headset before, this technology will leave you spellbound. You can look anywhere you like – a full 360° - and see the view as if you were really there.
To complete the tour, Comvita has provided plenty of food for thought. “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” Hippocrates once said. That belief underpins Comvita’s entire approach to making its natural health products and I’m encouraged to taste some for myself.
After chewing some crunchy granules of dried pollen (which taste strangely like hay), I happily sample a teaspoon of manuka honey. Drew explains all the different strengths of honey available, and I feel slightly guilty as I realise I’ve just swallowed what two bees spent their entire six week lives producing.
Approximately 1700 tonnes of manuka honey is harvested in New Zealand every year, and Comvita uses about 1000 tonnes (or 60 percent) of that to manufacture its products which are now exported all over the world.
A full range of those products are for sale at Experience Comvita, and the company’s very own manuka honey ice-cream is stocked in the Restore Café along with a delicious range of food using locally-grown produce.
Comvita’s mantra is “share nature – share life” and a visit to this unique tourist attraction is definitely an experience to share with your family and friends.
Experience Comvita tour prices are: $18 adults, $9 children, under 5’s free. Family pass $49 (2 adults & 4 children), senior citizens $16.