AUSTRALIA’S MANUKA: Broadwater apiarist Carmel Maloney with a jar of her family’s medicinal honey.
AUSTRALIA’S MANUKA: Broadwater apiarist Carmel Maloney with a jar of her family’s medicinal honey. Jamie Brown

Bush jelly - Australia's honey for healing

RICHMOND Valley beekeepers Alistair and Carmel Maloney are in the midst of harvesting a very special honey that heals wounds better than the famous New Zealand Manuka brand.

While the active ingredients of this sweet remedy are comparable to Manuka, the Australian jelly bush does not crystallise like its competition across the Tasman, and so makes it ideal for skin wounds that refuse to heal.

But extracting the sticky honey is a time-consuming and expensive process, and as a result this type of honey has been shunned until recent times.

"Make sure you get your bees off the coastal heath before October when the jelly bush flowers."

That was the advice of Alistair's mentor, and former Wollongbar apiarist, Barry Hawke before the world knew of the amazing anti-bacterial properties of the honey.

Tasting a lot like paperbark honey, with a strong malt taste, jelly bush honey is only produced in the spring when the coastal heath explodes into a shower of tiny flowers.

The jelly bush, correctly called leptospermum polygalifolium, grows in limited areas between Kempsey and Bribie Island before making another appearance in Far North Queensland.

This smoking tool subdues honey bees while working with their hives.
This smoking tool subdues honey bees while working with their hives.

In the old days, beekeepers felt they were lumbered with the product of the jelly bush because frames were often destroyed in getting the honey out.

Nowadays frames are made from extruded plastic, rather than wax, and so hold up better.

But because the cell walls of each honey cache are usually damaged, the bees must spend considerable energy rebuilding that structure before honey can be harvested again.

In addition the jelly bush itself is very low in protein, so the bees lose strength and conditioning while they feed up on the flowers.

In fact, bees in a jelly bush patch are downright docile, and it is unusual to get too many stings from bees in this environment.

Alistair, who has lived on his family property just outside Broadwater, south of Ballina, since the late 1880s, prepares his hives for the jelly bush season by fattening them up on the rich pollen of the macadamia and avocado orchards on the Alstonville Plateau.

As nature would have it, that season winds up just before the jelly bush flower, and the bees that have fed on the rich red soil have enough energy to make good use of the coastal heath before the red gums begin flowering out along the Kyogle ranges.

To aid his production, Alistair has created a plantation of jelly bush shrubs on his own heathland at Broadwater.

By observing which plants flowered strongest, and which attracted the most bees, Alistair returned later and harvested their seed.

He arranged for the Forestry Corporation of NSW's Grafton nursery to propagate them before transplanting the 2000 or so seedlings behind his house.

He irrigates them in the dry and has enhanced the orchard with flowering varieties of grevillea, callistemon and melaleuca which provide vital protein-rich pollen for the worker bees while they slave away on the lean jelly bush.

Protein levels in pollen really do make a difference, and Alistair says worker bees that feed on flowers with

little protein live just two weeks, while bees thriving on rich protein live up to six weeks.

And beekeepers can tell when bees have lots of protein on board because they sting like crazy.

Canola, for example, is rich in protein and really builds up a hive, but a word of warning to the careless bee handler who can receive up to a hundred stings in a day, if they are not careful.

Medicinal honey is classified as having an anti-bacterial activity level greater than 10.

Medical-grade honey, suitable for use in nursing homes and hospitals must be greater than 15.

The Maloneys' honey at Broadwater routinely measures greater than 17, but that figure fluctuates from year to year, averaging between 12 and 20.

"We have had it as high as 24," said Alistair's daughter Carmel, who markets the jelly bush honey for the family.

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