Meet Mike Bell, the driving force and founder of Manukora. With a deep-rooted love for New Zealand and its natural treasures, Mike's journey began simply, driven by a fascination for the magic of Manuka honey. Almost a decade ago, after drawing inspiration from legendary blind beekeeper Bryce Hooton and spending time surfing alongside third-generation beekeepers, while still maintaining his full time job, Mike embarked on the journey of creating Manukora.
In this conversation, we'll get to know Mike better, exploring his deep connection to New Zealand, delving into his wellness philosophy, and uncovering more of the captivating story that brought Manukora to life.
(Mike and Jim (master beekeeper) in the Far North with some frames from ones of Jim's hives, filled with pure Manuka)
(Surfing missions with third generation beekeepers exploring New Zealand's remote landscapes)
Could you share some insights into your personal life, including your hobbies and interests beyond your work with Manukora and the world of Manuka honey?
In the early days, life beyond work was minimal as my focus was entirely on building the business — an incredibly exciting opportunity.
In recent years, I've worked towards more of a balance, incorporating various activities outside of work. I hold a deep passion for the outdoors, so getting out surfing or hiking would be my most frequent hobbies, and skiing when I can fit it in. I’m stoked whenever I can get out in nature.
Another strong interest of mine which is somewhat beyond my work is yummy, healthy food! My wife Freya and I are suckers for any brand, restaurant etc. that produces unique food with passion. We just find it so interesting to experience, learn, and connect with all of the amazing things and people in this space.
(Mike catching some time out in the ocean)
The story of your early partnership with Bryce Hooton (the legendary blind beekeeper) is super inspiring. Can you share more about the knowledge he imparted to you, and how his influence shaped Manukora's values and practices?
Bryce has an epic story, and I was very, very lucky to meet him in the way that I did and for him to open up all of his knowledge and experience to me. I was in awe that I was able to learn about this liquid gold in my backyard from one of the pioneer Manuka beekeepers of New Zealand.
What really struck me about Bryce was his care for the bees and the land and if you get those things right, you are able to produce the highest quality product.
Not having his sight (after losing it in two separate farming accidents six months apart when he was young) meant Bryce really had to tune into the bees using his other senses, so the practices that he developed were very different from other commercial beekeeping operations.
We’ve come to call this ‘The Art of Ethical Beekeeping’ and over the years we’ve worked with our growing network of master beekeepers across New Zealand to evolve and strengthen these practices.
So Bryce’s care for the bees and the land has become foundational to how we do business and how all of our honey is produced to this day.
(Mike and Bryce back in the day)
Could you take us through the journey from those early days of packing Manuka honey jars in a rural New Zealand shed to becoming a prominent Manuka brand in the United States?
The early days were a lot of fun. I was really just rolling up my sleeves and absorbing everything I could from Bryce.
He had this charming little honey packing shed at the base of the Kaimai Ranges in Matamata. Whenever I could find time outside of my other job (practically every weekend), I was down there learning the ropes.
I was fascinated by the delicate process of packing honey from the hive into jars using Bryce's special techniques. Honey can be quite sticky - I made my fair share of mistakes, and things got messy quite often :)
As I grasped the fundamentals of honey packing, I started to shift my focus towards building the brand and selling this amazing super honey.
Outside of selling some jars at the local NZ farmer's markets, our very first sales channel was Amazon, back in 2015. It was exciting to watch a few jars being sold each day and gradually increasing over time.
We've also had our share of good luck, but it's immensely rewarding to see where the brand stands now and how we're helping to shape the category in the US. We believe we're just getting started, and there's plenty more hard work ahead. We’re extremely proud to be supplying what we believe is the highest quality Manuka to our loyal customers.
(The first office at the back of the original packing shed in the Waikato)
(Shifting drums of honey around at the old packing shed)
(An example of a minor sticky mess in the early days!)
(Inside our new state-of-the-art honey packing facility in Te Aroha)
(Mike and Alice (our sales manager) off to sample Manukora at Erewhon in LA)
New Zealand's environment is crucial to Manukora's honey production. Can you describe the specific regions or landscapes in New Zealand that are most conducive to producing premium Manuka honey?
The Manuka tree has been part of New Zealand for centuries, with the indigenous Maori people using various parts of the tree in their traditional wellness remedies. The Manuka plant thrives across the country, especially in the Golden Triangle, which includes Northland, the East Cape, Wanganui, and Taranaki. These regions have ideal conditions for producing the most active and pure Manuka honey, thanks to dense Manuka bush areas, specific soil types, and harsh coastal weather that encourages the plant to produce highly active nectar.
Within the Golden Triangle, our bees are located in dense and remote Manuka forests far from human interruption to ensure Manukora Manuka is of the highest quality and free of environmental toxins!
(Jim checking on the bees in a Manuka forest in the remote Far North of New Zealand)
In terms of health and wellness, what are some daily habits or rituals you prioritize to stay at your best both mentally and physically?
To be at my best, both mentally and physically, is something I haven't always prioritized while building the business, but something I am overtly conscious of now. There is always so much to learn in this space!
I view wellness through various pillars: nutrition (including hydration), sleep, exercise, recovery and social interaction and do my best to give these all the time they deserve.
Over recent years, I've made a real effort to refine my nutrition as I see it as the foundation for good health. I’ve focused a lot on a plant-based, whole-foods diet (book recco below). I start my day with fruits and smoothies and have probably consumed about 10 different plants by the end of breakfast in one way or another! I also make a big effort to buy organic, local foods where possible.
And of course, Manuka is part of my daily wellness ritual which you can read about below.
Spending time in nature is absolutely key for me and getting out surfing and hiking with friends are the best resets. Recently I've also started experimenting with hot and cold therapy (ice baths and saunas), which has been a fun and beneficial addition to my weeks!
(The stick packs go everywhere with Mike...)
As a company rooted in New Zealand, what are some of the values or principles that you believe reflect the essence of your home country and are integrated into the Manukora brand?
I love this question. I'm really proud of my Kiwi roots, and I believe they've significantly shaped both my personal life and Manukora.
New Zealanders are fortunate to grow up in a country rich in natural beauty. Being conscious of just how special this is has really driven a deep sense of responsibility into our thinking, and the desire to protect this amazing planet.
Additionally, we've grown up eating some of the best food/ingredients in the world right from our own backyard. Understanding that this only happens because we are blessed with young soils and remote, untouched land has led us to double down on this in all of our practices to ensure we provide our customers with Manuka honey of the highest purity.
(Mike and master beekeeper Julian in the Far North)
(Mike and master beekeeper Collin at Collin's home on Great Barrier Island)
(Mike and some of the Manukora team hiking out at Great Barrier Island)
(The sign says it all!)
What makes you a Manukora super user?
Well, as you can imagine, since I’m lucky enough to have a solid supply of Manukora, I am a BIG user! I have had the chance to try thousands and thousands of unique batches from all over New Zealand and I still absolutely love the creamy caramel goodness!
Taking the 850+ (or 1123+ when we have it on hand) straight from the spoon each morning is my daily ritual. I try to take time to let the texture slowly melt in my mouth, which also prepares the digestive system - what a way to start the day!
In recent years, I've also been incorporating our Manuka into different foods and beverages, inspired by our awesome customers. Obvious combos like oats or fruit in the morning (I make a killer smoothie bowl with Manukora inside and on top), but exploring unique pairings with pizza, or ice cream has been really fun! However, I'll always make sure to have it by itself each day; it's a delightful experience that helps me truly appreciate the product and I love feeling it’s superpowers working directly on my tongue/throat.
I also love discerning the subtle differences between batches, which adds to the experience. When I incorporate it into other parts of my day, I like to explore various use cases.
(Mikes 10+ plant summer smoothie bowl!)
What books, podcasts, or resources have influenced your personal philosophy on health, wellness, or business management?
Here are three great resources that come straight to mind:
- Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz MD is an awesome book for anyone looking to understand more about the plant based, wholefoods diet, and the beneficial effects for the gut due to eating this way.
- The How I Built This podcast by Guy Raz has hugely inspired me and still does to this day. A recent episode that’s definitely worth a listen is the Orgain interview with a friend of mine, Andrew Abraham.
- The last one is a doco, Kiss the Ground (I think this is on Netflix). It presents an amazing case for regenerative farming, and the opportunity to have a positive impact on the climate if we can work out how to produce food in the right way.
Mike's journey exemplifies the essence of Manukora's commitment to ethical beekeeping and high quality, pure New Zealand products. We're stoked to have been able to get deeper insights into the passion and care behind every product and understand more about Mike's journey to craft creamy, caramel Manuka honey.
At Manukora, we invite you to explore our trending products, including the highly sought-after Manuka Honey MGO 200 and the exclusive Manuka Honey MGO1000, each product reflecting our dedication to quality and sustainability. Delve into the heart of our operation with our comprehensive guide on back to the source traceability to understand the journey from hive to home.
For those curious about the natural processes, our article on why does honey crystallize offers fascinating insights. Lastly, for a deeper understanding of our products' value, don't miss our detailed exploration in decoding Manuka honey price value.