Whether experienced or beginner, a beekeeper expects to come to a hive with a pleasant aroma of sweet honey. However, under the right conditions, that hive may smell more like rotting flesh, ammonia, or urine.
While some reasons may not affect your bees or honey, many are detrimental to the health of your hive.
Read on to discover 4 reasons why your honey smells bad and what you can do about it.
1. Your Honey is Fermenting
Honey as we know it is thick, viscous, and gooey. In creating and storing honey, bees intentionally create this texture by lowering the honey’s moisture content below 20 percent.
Bees go through the extra work of lowering the honey’s moisture to lengthen the shelf life of the honey. Many microorganisms thrive in warm, wet conditions, So, when bees don’t reduce the moisture content of their honey, that’s exactly what starts to happen.
Microorganisms, like yeast, start to feed off the nectar and reproduce. This is not inherently dangerous, as yeast reproduction is common among other cultivated foods like wine, beer, apple cider, vinegar, etc. Yeast reproduction in honey is even common when under controlled parameters. However, when honey begins to ferment naturally, it is very sour, and the texture is off.
While fermented honey is safe to eat, it’s not the typical sweet, pleasant taste people are used to. However, fermented honey is early to detect and fix.
The first sign of honey about to ferment is the absence of a cap. Bees cap honey once the moisture has lowered to the correct percentage. However, sometimes they forget and move on to the next batch of honey.
If this happens, all you have to do is remove the comb and start dehydrating the honey yourself. Most beekeepers do this by keeping the honey in a warm room with a dehumidifier for several days.
Other signs include:
- Bubbles inside the honey.
- Foam on top of the honey.
- Honey hisses when you remove the cap.
- The presence of crystallization or white feathery patterns
The first sign of fermenting honey will be -signs-how to avoid
2. Your Bees are Diseased
Honeybees are susceptible to many diseases, with some killing the colony in less than three weeks. Thus, recognizing and preventing disease is important as a beekeeper.
Common diseases and parasites include:
- Varroa mites
- American Foulbrood
While these diseases are unfavorable for a productive beehive, American foulbrood (AFB) is the most consequential.
A bacterial larva causes AFB. The spores of these bacteria start to infest honeybee larvae once ingested. Likely found in the food, the bacteria spores begin germinating in the brood’s food within 24 hours of being swallowed.
Once germination has begun, the bacteria quickly grow through the tissues of the brood. Once it grows outside of the brood, its spores spread quickly to other broods throughout the colony. Because it kills the brood and spreads quickly, colonies will die as fast as three weeks after being contaminated.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for AFB. The spores are microscopic and can live for more than 50 years. They can remain dormant on all hive parts and are resistant to heat, drugs, and chemical disinfectants. If your colony tests positive for AFB, you must destroy the entire colony by burning it and burying it 2 feet under the ground.
The intensity of AFB infestation will depend on the number of larvae that directly ingest the AFB larvae, the temperature of the hive, and the humidity.
Signs of AFB infestation include:
- Irregular brood pattern
- Sunken, dark, or greasy brood cappings
- Pupal mass has ropey consistency
- Foul odor (hence the name), think dead animal smell
3. Your Bees are Collecting Stinky Nectar
While we naturally expect all flowers to have a pleasant scent, that’s not always the case. One reason your hive might smell bad is that your bees are collecting nectar from stinky flowers.
While all plants have a small effect on the smell and taste of honey (ex: wildflower honey vs. clover honey), other plants will significantly affect honey’s features.
More specifically, the family of Asteraceae plants creates honey that smells very strongly. Common asters include goldenrod, dandelion, and daisy-like flowers. Asters usually bloom in the autumn, which is when you’re most likely to smell this type of honey.
Although it doesn’t significantly change the taste of the honey, it can be very potent in the smell. For that reason, some beekeepers opt to leave it for their bees. However, some studies point to aster honey having specific medical benefits not found in other kinds of honey.
How you can differentiate aster honey from the presence of foulbrood is mainly the smell. The smell of aster honey will remind you of a specific flower (most likely a dandelion or goldenrod). In addition, aster honey has notes of vinegar and ammonia, while AFB smells like rotting flesh.
Luckily, if you are sensitive to harsh smells, there are easy ways to avoid aster honey. Since most aster flowers bloom during the fall season, all you have to do is harvest before they bloom. After they begin to bloom, allow your bees to keep whatever honey is produced.
4. You Have a Mouse Infestation
Do none of the smells above match what you are experiencing with your hive? While there are several other options of what it may be, if your hive smells of urine, you probably have a mouse infestation.
Mice are generalists when it comes to food. They have plenty of food to eat during the summertime, including your garden veggies, cat or dog food, or other wild plants and insects. However, when it starts to become cold outside, there are fewer options for them.
So, sometimes, mice will be brave enough to enter a beehive during a cold night. While they would never do this in warm weather, due to the likelihood of them being attacked and killed, they are much safer during the cold. Bees are very vulnerable to weather changes. When it’s cold, bees gather together in one section of the hive to keep that area and themselves warm.
During this time, a mouse will sneakily enter the hive undetected. They are especially attracted to top bar hives, although they’ve been seen in Warre and Langstroth as well.
Mice presence is harmful to you and your hive because:
- Mice eat pollen directly from the pollen band, which your bees feed from. If your bees are left with little to no pollen, they will need supplemental feeding, or they can starve.
- Mice carry lots of diseases, including American Foulbrood or Varroa Mites. If they come into contact with honey that you harvest, they may also contaminate that.
Signs of a mouse infestation include:
- Wax on the floor of the hive in large chunks
- Headless, dead bees
- The smell of urine.
Like other mice infestations, you can get rid of them by placing traps and covering your hive in deterrent scents. You can also move the hive to a location with less access.
While it’s not common for your honey to smell bad, it’s not disastrous either. Honey can smell off for several reasons, especially given the region and time of year. However, the 4 most common reasons your honey smells are that your bees have American Foulbrood, your honey is fermenting, your bees have collected nectar from aster plants, or you have a mouse problem.
Depending on the reason, you can easily detect where it’s coming from and solve the issue quickly.