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Honey from the Forest




Introduction - Tasmanian Forest Products

What is Leatherwood Honey?

Some facts about the Tasmanian honey industry

Bees used in Tasmania

Some links related to honey, leatherwood honey and bees.


Tasmanian forest products

The old growth forests of Tasmania are renowned throughout the world as the home of the tallest flowering plants, Eucalyptus regnans(commonly known as Swamp gum or Mountain ash). The Tasmanian West coast wilderness areas are considered so valuable and unspoilt that they have been classified as a world heritage area and will never be logged. The main products from the Tasmanian native forests are pulpwood and sawn timber as well as many other minor wood and non wood products which play an important role in Forestry Tasmania's management strategies and contribute to the Tasmanian economy and culture. These products are often harvested in conjunction with logging activities or may occur independently(eg. manfern harvesting and apiary).

These products include;

In addition to these products state forests are also strongly promoted for tourism purposes such as rafting, bushwalking and four wheel driving. Although the Tasmanian forests produce a wide variety of products themselves, the spectacular Tasmanian wilderness has helped to create an image of a green unspoilt island. Other natural resource industries which benefit from this image are farming and dairy(products such as King Island cheeses and creams, wineries such as Morilla Estate), seafood(abalone, salmon and scallops) and the apiary industry based on Leatherwood honey. Both forest and non forest natural produce provide income and a cultural diversity that makes Tasmania a very unique state.


What is Leatherwood Honey?

Leatherwood honey is, as its name suggests the honey that bees produce from the nectar of the Leatherwood(Eucryphia lucida) plants' flower. The Leatherwood plant is endemic to Tasmania and is found in the wetter forest regions throughout the Western portion of the state. Leatherwood is the single most important nectar plant in Tasmania accounting for about 70% of all honey produced. Other sources of nectar include clover(in pasture), Eucalyptus blossoms and Blackberry. The variety of plants available to bees in nectar foraging may be used as a supplement to the Leatherwood plant in times of poor flowering or in parts of the season when Leatherwood does not flower, this is a preferable diet to feeding the bees sugar. Pure(unblended) varietal honey(such as Leatherwood) is analagous to single malt scotch whisky, even though flavours may vary from one season to the next and from batch to batch the flavour and character of the unblended product is superior enough to fetch a premium price. Unblended Leatherwood honey has a unique taste and smell which is quite different from that of blended honey and to many people consider it an acquired taste, some people swear by it others swear about it. This distinctive spicy flavour has made Leatherwood honey a reputation as a fine gourmet product both in Australia and overseas. Leatherwood honey may be bought either in its normal form or as a creamed(aerated honey). Honey is composed of two main sugars levulose and dextrose which are easily absorbed and used by the body, there are also many other minerals and vitamins in small quantities which give the honey its colour, flavour and physical properties. Honey also has a mild antibacterial effects and has been used as a salve for burns and an antiseptic for cuts in the past. Leatherwood honey may be used for a variety of purposes such as

Generally anywhere that normal honey would be used but for a much more exciting flavour!


The Tasmanian honey industry

The honey industry in Tasmania contributes significant social and economic benefits to the people that live there. Many of the apiaries in Tasmania are family business which have been passed on for generations, two examples of this are the Jones family and the Stephens family which have been involved in the Leatherwood apiary business since the early 1940's and early 1930's respectively. Annual production of honey is fairly stable at 1000tons with a value of $1.5million . As a result of the gourmet and premium image promoted by the honey industry a large proportion(45%) of Tasmanian honey is exported internationally with the rest being consumed locally and interstate. International exports are primarily pure Leatherwood honey. As a direct employer apiaries do not employ many people but activities related to the honey industry help to boost the indirect value of the industry to around $50 million. These activities include; processing, manufacturing, retail, promotion, pollination services and regulation.


The leatherwood plant, Eucryphia lucida (Labill. 1800)

The common name of the E. lucida is probably derived from waxy(leather coloured) sheath that covers young leaves and petals but may also be derived from the toughness of the timber. There are two types of Leatherwood in Tasmania, Eucryphia lucida and Eucryphia milliganii, both are occur as understorey species. E. lucida is the most common and most important species to the Leatherwood honey industry. E. milliganii is less common and tends to replace E. lucida at higher altitudes and in more exposed sites. E. lucida is an understorey species in the wetter forests of Tasmania(areas which receive 1000-2000mm p.a)ranging from mixed forest to rainforest. The altitudinal range of the species is variable from sea level up to about 1000meters where it tends to be replaced by E. milliganii. As E. lucida is an understorey species it does not reach the great heights of the famous Tasmanian oaks(Eucalyptus obliqua and Eucalyptus regnans and delegatensis) but can reach up to 30m in light wells or gully areas.


a) Areas used for apiculture b) Distribution of Leatherwood in Tasmania

Click to view full images

The Leatherwood tree has bark similar to many understorey species with a smooth texture and variable colour often covered with lichen. Leaves are stiff, dark green glossy, oblong shaped with a rounded tip, 3-5cm long and 1-2cm wide. A feature of the plant is the waxy orange sheath (leather colour) that covers the young leaves and buds. Flowers are axially in upper leaves with joined sepals that shed on full expansion of petals. There are four white petals which are spread widely and are up to 2cm in diameter each.

click on thumbnail for the full picture

The flowering habits of the Leatherwood are highly variable both from year to year, between localities and within localities. Many factors influence the amount of flowers present in any one year. Many apiarists believe that a wet Autumn and Spring leads to heavy flowering in summer. Light intensity also affects whether a tree flowers, even though Leatherwood is a shade tolerant species it doesn't tend to flower as profusely in a shady position as it will if it forms part of the canopy or grows in a canopy break. The nectar yield of Leatherwood trees is correlated to the age of the tree and research by the Forests and Forest Industry Council has substantiated a common conception among Tasmanian apiarists that young Leatherwood trees are a poor nectar source. Research has shown that trees under 75 generally don't flower at all and the most prolific flowering trees are those that 175 to 210 years old and trees. Age correlated flowering means that even though regrowth eucalypt forest may be rich in Leatherwood seedlings or young trees it would be worthless as a nectar resource. Much of the Leatherwood apiary industry in Tasmania is reliant apon old growth forest in both wood production and conservation areas as these areas contain the richest concentrations of high yielding Leatherwood trees. Leatherwood timber has a density of about 700kg per cubic meter and is used for pulpwood and furniture manufacture.


What bees are used in the Tasmanian honey industry?

Apis mellifera mellifera(Northern European race) was first introduced into Tasmania in the early 1830's by a Mr G. Wilson and his brother Dr Wilson and(apart from the introduction of the Italian race of mellifera) has until recently been the only exotic species known in Tasmania. Apis mellifera mellifera originated from Northern Europe and is generally not used in the Tasmanian apiary industry today for a number of reasons. The Northern European race is still commonly found in the forest in feral swarms that originate from earlier apiary activities, they are more adapted to harsh conditions and are able to survive cold winters in the forest. The race that is used in the honey industry today instead of the mellifera race is the Italian race lingustica. The Italian race is better behaved(ie. more docile), builds up rapidly in the hive and is capable of rearing broods late into the honey season. An unplanned release of the bumble bee(Bombus terrestris) means that there are now two exotic species of bees but the bumble bee is different from Apis mellifera in many ways, it is much larger and is primarily used for pollination purposes rather than honey production.

When placed on roadside landings in the forest bees will venture out from the hive and forage on Leatherwood blossoms in the area. Foraging distance is limited by many factors, one of which is energy expenditure. The further away from the hive a bee ventures when foraging, the more energy it expends therefore there is a point at which the bee actually expends more energy flying than it does collecting nectar. An approximation of foraging distances for Leatherwood nectar is 3km radius from the hive. Other factors which influence foraging behaviour are temperature, humidity, daylength and topography. Bees will not forage in extremely cold or hot temperatures, when it is raining, in the dark and seem to dislike flying over ridges.

click on thumbnail for full image


Leatherwood Honey

The Leatherwood based honey industry in Tasmania plays an important role in the food based sector of the economy and has achieved a level of success as a value added export product which many other Australian primary industries have not reached. As a cultural resource the industry is valuable because it provides a unique lifestyle for those families involved in it, Apiculture is representative of a traditional way of life and as such is worthy of preservation.


Some honey related links

Excellent summary of honeybees and their orgins

A general guide on Australian honey production

Derwent valley apiaries(Tasmania) specialising in Leatherwood honey

Tasmanian Honey Company - gourmet food wholesalers

Leatherwood honey in the USA
Rainforest Honey Co.

Blue Gum Fine Foods
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Copyright (c) 1998 The Australian National University
Author: Student @ the Forestry Department
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Date Last Modified:26th October 1999