Thyme Honey is produced from the herb "Common Thyme" (Thymus vulgaris) in a small area in Central Otago in New Zealand's South Island around the town of Alexandra.
It is thought that this is the only population of Thyme growing wild outside its natural range of countries bordering the Mediterranean. Thyme was brought to the area by miners during the gold rush of the the late 1800s, who used it as a herb and medicinal plant. As the gold mining diminished, it slowly spread to become well established in the arid climate of Central Otago.
Preferring North facing slopes, (particularly the gold "tailings" from mining operations) Thyme is slowly spreading on the drier, poorer soils, but is easily controlled where adequate water and soil quality allow clovers and grasses to flourish, smothering the Thyme.
Thyme is a strongly flavoured perennial herb, growing to a maximum of around 30cm high. The plant has a predominant scent that is characteristic of many of the Thymus genus. There are 6 or 7 known subspecies of T. vulgaris and these are characterized by their essential oil makeup. Of these, two are found in New Zealand in two separate populations, and the phenols Thymol and Carvacrol are represented differently in these two populations. It is known that there are slight differences in the smell of these plants. It is not however known if this extends to the honey produced from them - although this is likely.
These phenols are possibly one reason that thyme oil is known for its antibacterial activity. While some research has been done on antibacterial activity on Thyme honey, to date no significant difference to other New Zealand honeys has been shown.
Crop Timing - Pollen Representation
Thyme Honey is produced in Spring with the plant flowering in late October and November. This Spring honey crop tends to lead to honey being packed around the beehive's "broodnest" and as such is often stored in close proximity to Spring pollen. During extraction this may be a source of extraneous pollen not associated with the nectar producing the honey. The result can be very high (often more than 1,000,000 pollen grains per 10 grams of honey) total pollen counts with the result that Thyme pollen percentages are very low, even when the product is a good quality Thyme honey. Pollen is under represented with only around 3,000 - 8,000 pollen grains per 10 grams of honey (Moar 1980) and thus requires a minimum of 20% thyme pollen to categorize as a monofloral honey. Given the extraneous pollen problem mentioned above, this can sometimes be difficult to achieve. However if producers take care in their hive management, having extracting boxes only for thyme honey, strong hives with single brood nests etc., high quality thyme honey with high thyme pollen counts is not difficult to produce.
The annual crop of Thyme honey is around 20 to 80 tonnes depending on the season. The main honey types associated with thyme honey production are Matagouri (Discaria toumatou) and Willow (Salix sp. particularly S. fragilis).
The effect of either of these two nectar sources is mostly to lighten the colour. The flavour of Thyme honey is so dominant, that neither Matagouri or Willow have any appreciable impact on flavour or aroma.
Thyme honey is around 105 mm in colour (Pfund scale), while Matagouri is in the lower 20-40mm colour range and Willow is around 50-60mm.
Thyme Honey is probably New Zealand's strongest flavoured honey. It is a member of the mint family, and the aroma and flavour of Thyme honey are herbal, pungent and distinctive. Beekeepers' honey extraction plants in the Thyme area have a an unmistakable smell to them, long after the Thyme crop has been extracted. As a recipe ingredient, Thyme honey is a wonderful gourmet treat, but needs to be used carefully. A little can go a long way!