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Stinky honey

“Help! My bees need a bath!”

“My honey stinks.”

“There’s a foul smell coming from my hive entrance.”

“I have reeky bees.”

“My bees are collecting rancid nectar.”

“My hive smells like my husband’s gym locker.”

What is that smell?

Every autumn a large number of beekeepers report stinky honey. The source of the smell is nectar, most probably from plants in the aster family, including goldenrod and small daisy-like flowers that grow in clusters.

When your bees start to dry this nectar into honey the smell can be overwhelming and somewhat startling. It’s just not the odor you expect from your sweet bees.

Although goldenrod, dandelion, and aster honeys are often not favorites, they aren’t terrible, and they taste nothing like the odor they give off. Nevertheless, many beekeepers prefer to let the bees keep the aster honey for themselves.

This actually works quite well since asters are largely fall-flowing plants. Beekeepers can harvest in early fall and then let the bees keep the fall honey for overwintering.

American foulbrood smells very different

Some beekeepers fear American foulbrood (AFB) when they smell aster nectar, but the odors are quite different. Aster nectar has been described as musty, musky, funky, rank, moldy, sour, and rancid. AFB has more of a dead animal smell . . . think rotting meat or fly-riddled carcass on the side of the road.

If you are uncertain, look at your capped brood. If your brood is healthy-looking you are probably smelling aster honey, but if you see shrunken brood caps, discoloration, holes in the caps, and the brood frames smell like death, then you need to test for AFB.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Asteraceae family plants often produce stinky honey.
Many plants in the Asteraceae family produce odoriferous honey. Flickr photo by photofarmer.

Comments

Lois
Reply

You are fabulous! I have been talking about the sweaty sock smell of dandelion forage for years and everyone thinks I’m mad! Thank you for mentioning it in your blog.

Rusty
Reply

Lois,

You are very welcome! Maybe some folks are more sensitive to the smell than others.

Wil
Reply

My bees smelled like BO and dirty laundry this past summer but I still loves them

Morris
Reply

Tansy ragwort can be added to the list of poor tasting honey too.

Rusty
Reply

Morris,

Good point, and it too is in the Asteraceae family.

Joyouw
Reply

While Goldenrod smells awful during the gathering and drying by the bees….it is one of my MOST favorite tasting honey!!!! Very floral and a wonderful taste, though it crystallizes rather quickly. Goldenrod is wonderful for you as well. Many think “OH! ALLERGIES!!!” It’s actually the cure for them many times, it the Ragweed that is AWAYS close by. 🙂 I’m using Goldenrod honey to sweeten my fall Apple Butter ~~~ DELISH!!!!

Hafiz
Reply

What a relief to read this!!! I was so nervous with the smell next to our hives..I was pretty sure it was something sinister. Now I see it was those blue flowers around the eastern end of the house. A very different smell and quite puzzling. My wife thought it was the pollen. I am glad its not AFB. Thanks for sharing!

Hafiz

Phillip
Reply

I encountered a different kind of stinky honey today. I think it’s from fermented honey. Longish story short, I pulled off a deep of honey that had been sitting on top of a colony all winter and I found four frames that appeared to be sweating. Fully capped, dark, liquid honey, but wet on the outside — and stinking like a cheap tequila. If I was a honey bee stuck inside a wooden box, I’d get drunk just off the fumes from it. But I figured drunk bees are better than starving bees, so I gave the honey to some other colonies that were short on honey. This is my first time feeding bees what I can only guess is fermented honey. Do you think I did the right thing?

This sounds like a Dear Abby letter.

Rusty
Reply

Dear Stinky,

I can’t imagine that the honey under the caps had turned. Is it possible that the smell came from a few broken or uncapped cells? Or that mold was growing on the moisture that accumulated on the surface of the capped honey? Like slime mold? In any case, the answer is here: “One for the road: bees with a buzz.”

Phillip
Reply

Uh, I hope it isn’t slime mold. It’s seems not unlikely now that you’ve put the thought in my head. I’ll check out the bees in a few days and see how they’re handling it. I don’t mind them getting a little light headed, but slime mold doesn’t sound good. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

I give them fermented syrup now and then; I just make sure it’s not their only choice. Still, when you think about it, feral swarms must deal with it. Alcohol is a fact of life.

I don’t much about slime mold, but they probably handle that as well.

Lisa
Reply

We just pulled and extracted some of the stinkiest smelly honey we have had and it taste like it smells. My question will the smell or taste ever fade any to where it is edible? From what I have read it’s the musty, BO smell. I guess i just lost 2 gallons of honey. It is just frustrating because we lost all hives last year now back to 8 hives to have this to deal with. I guess it is always something to keep me on my toes.

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

It sounds like goldenrod or something similar. I don’t think the taste changes much over time, but some people like it. You could always sell it—just let folks have a taste first so they know what they’re getting. Also, you can cook with it. Better yet, save it for your bees for winter stores. They will certainly like it. Extracted honey can be put in a feeder instead of sugar syrup and is better for the bees. If it crystallizes, you can feed it straight from the jar—you don’t even have to take it out. You certainly didn’t lose the two gallons, you just have to put it to different uses.

Norma
Reply

Thank you. I bought some raw honey, and it tastes musty. If I knew a bee keeper, I would donate it; it tastes that bad. I am glad to know that it will not make me sick.

Jayne Seitz
Reply

My daughter gave me a pint of honey that her husband harvested out of a wall in an old house. It smells like dirty socks, but taste fine. Is it safe to use? I have been afraid to use even though I know honey doesn’t spoil. Help!

Rusty
Reply

Jayne,

The “dirty socks” smell is characteristic of goldenrod honey. People say it tastes fine and the odor disappears after a time. It is most probably perfectly safe to eat.

Joyouw
Reply

If it is cured well…I’ve found the smell does dissipate and leaves a flowery almost perfumed smell, and taste great – at least to me….I must be one of the odd folks 🙂

David
Reply

What is AFB?

Rusty
Reply

American foulbrood.

paul
Reply

Hoping you can calm my fears. I just bought raw, unfiltered honey from amazon. The taste is great. But the odor is awful. It smells like poo. There isn’t any description of the type of honey or flowers, just that it is raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

Your honey is fine. Honey has natural antimicrobial properties that keeps organisms from living in it. It is complex, but there are four mechanisms that keep it safe: high osmolarity, high acidity, the presence of glucose oxidase (which produces hydrogen peroxide), and various phytochemicals. This is why honey that is hundreds or even thousands of years old (found in tombs) is still safe to eat.

The smell is unrelated to safety. Certain plants produce nectar that smells bad, especially to some people. Plants in the Asteraceae family, for example dandelions, goldenrod, etc., are especially known for this. Some people say the smell dissipates as the honey ages, but I don’t know how long that would take. Just remember that the objectionable smell is coming from the nectar, not from a spoilage agent.

One more thing, the antimicrobial properties remain strongest in honey that is unpasteurized. Heat can destroy some of the properties, so the safest honey is untouched.

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