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That busy beehive smell

What is the odor that so defines an industrious hive? It has to be a blend of beeswax, nectar, larvae, and pheromones–a mix overlaid with pollen, propolis, and wood. But the combination is unique.

Oddly, it doesn’t seem to matter where the bees are or what they forage on. The odor is singular and unforgettable. If you smelled it once when you were five, you would recognize it fifty years later.

It’s also one of those odors that can be conjured up by association. If I just hear a busy hive, I can imagine the scent. Or if I only see bees darting and soaring overhead, I smell the aroma. Although the odor is pleasant to beekeepers, I can imagine others finding it somewhat unsettling. A bit feral, perhaps, or gamey.

I was reminded of it several weeks ago when my husband and I were pouring over some unrelated project–broken dishwasher or the like–when he suddenly said, “You smell like a beehive.”  Well, jeese, I hardly knew how to respond. So I settled on, “Thank you.”

But when I try to describe beehive smell, I come up blank. To me, it has earthy notes. And hints of salt. Mysterious, musky, balmy. It is not sharp, tangy, or acrid but soft and round like cotton and nebulous like sea foam. It’s an odor you could stuff a pillow with.

So the next time you inhale “busy beehive” think of all the folks who never have. Think how lucky you are. Think how much fuller your life has become now that others think you smell like bugs.

Rusty

Comments

jess s
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Best blog post ever? I think so. Pls. Read. How does a busy beehive smell: http://t.co/7EKr73J

Withers Mountain Honey Farm on Facebook
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I love the attempt to describe a busy beehive smell. Some things you just can’t quite manage. I would also add warm and moist to the description. How do you translate that?

Emily
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Great post Rusty!

I find it remarkable that the lovely bee smell in each hive may smell the same to us, but they can tell bees from other hives apart just from their slightly different colony odour. All the bees in a hive share their food around constantly so that their stomach contents are all very similar, which helps them to identify different smelling intruders.

From what I’ve read the different odour is caused by the slightly different mix of flowers each hive feeds on, and if all the hives in an area are feeding on the same diet – such as oil seed rape – the bees get irritable because they can’t tell each other apart. Which is interesting to think about for bees forced to pollinate mono-crops like almonds.

Doug
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It’s funny you should write about that. My memory banks trigger that beehive smell from time to time, no matter how far away I am from my hives. It is such a wholesome, earthy, unique fragrance, that I feel good about it and smile, when it happens. It’s my favorite fragrance, second only to that of my wife’s perfume…of course.

Jeff
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You are right. You cannot really describe it. It is a sweet sickly smell, somewhat like butterscotch, yet not like butterscotch. But it is an amazing smell. Last summer in late august I could smell it 40 feet from the colony. I was afraid it was going to draw bears near.

Loree
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We just started beekeeping this year and some mornings I walk out on the deck with my coffee to enjoy listening and watching… and I think…is that the beehives I smell? YUP! It is AWESOME and so full of energy and calm all at the same time!

Gary N
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Funny, my Dad caught our first hive about 40 yrs ago and the aroma brings me right back to many fond memories.
Tonight, my 15 yr old son and I were doing some hive work on his first hive and needed to remove a queen cage. We got back to the garage and he was inspecting the cage. Without prompting, he brought it to his nose to catch the aroma.
I asked him, “how does it smell?” “Goooood” was his response. It’s awesome how we can relate to such a complex aroma so quickly.

Rusty
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That’s a great story. He will remember that smell for the rest of his life.

Russ Chandler
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Warm summer nights walking through the apiary. Gentle hum, delicious aroma. Etched in memory and olfactory senses forever!

Phillip
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I could actually smell honey from our hives for the first time last week. We’re hitting the peak of our delayed summer season and the bees are making up for lost time. But in the past couple days I’ve noticed an almost rotten meat type of odour around the hives. It’s not over powering, neither is it difficult to detect. I’m not sure what it is.

Any ideas?

Both hives seem to be doing well. One of them filled up a honey super last week. I had to add a second super. Both hives are well ventilated. They seem healthy. But I have no idea why they would stink at this time of year.

I’m inspecting one of the hives later today to see if anything odd is going on.

Rusty
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Phillip,

I, too, noticed that yesterday around my busiest and biggest hive. My first thought was American Foul Brood–a horrifying thought indeed. When I opened the hive, though, I realized the smell was coming from outside, not inside, the hive. I isolated it to piles of dead drones and dead drone pupae on the ground. When I got down low, I could smell it more.

Phillip
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Funny, I began thinking the same thing about 10 seconds ago. The bees in one, the all-foundationless hive, have been booting out drones for awhile. I also recently installed some old drone comb in that hive, old drone comb that still had some dead pupae in the cells. The discarded rotting dead pupae have probably contributed to the stink too.

I’ll still take a look inside the hive just to be safe. I haven’t inspected the hive for awhile anyway (I’ve gotten better at leaving the bees alone when I can tell they’re doing just fine). It’s probably the dead drones, though. Thanks.

Monk
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Thank you for posting this, now I know I’m not crazy, or worrying about the bees. Sitting on my front porch today, over 150 feet from my three backyard hives, I smelled the unmistakable smell of the hive. I told my husband to breathe deep, as this is what it smells like when you open them up . . . It was the first time I had smelled the hives without having my nose near the top bars!

Many hours later, I am still enjoying that aroma. Better than night blooming jasmine.

stacygt
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This is our first year with bees. When approaching our hive, I do not smell the earthiness described, but a strong scent of honey. Do I have a problem? Thanks.

Rusty
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No, not at all. The earthy smell is more prominent in the spring and summer, the honey smell is more prominent in the fall. It sounds like they have packed away a nice supply. Good job.

Sarah
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I just discovered this site and am very pleased. This is my first winter with the bees, and I hope its mild weather will help them pull through.

Over the summer I noticed this smell coming from my hive. I asked my beekeeping friend what it was and she said she notices it in her own hives when they are making honey from goldenrod and aster. I love it.

Aina
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As a new beekeeper I constantly learn new things about my girls, and the smell is one thing that has arrived the last couple of days. My hive is in a place where I pass by every day. Approximately 5 feet away from the gate to my garage. The last couple of days I’ve been a little puzzled about this smell and noticed today, yes, it definitely comes from my hive. I had to do a Google search and thereby found you guys with a perfect explanation of the busy bee hive smell. I love it!!, well now that I know what it is….have to admit I was a little bit uncertain at first. My bees will receive a second story this spring and I can’t wait to get to peek into their quarters to see how they’ve done through the winter. I do live in CA, so not too cold here. (-: Thank you for a great page.

Sarah Moore
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I just stumbled on this. Best description of the hive smell. Thank you. I always try to tell people about the non-visual experiences of beekeeping. People are so stuck on facts. This give a hint of the experience instead. This is a gem.

Dave P
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Totally agree, I had my childhood memory relit recently when I remembered the aroma when I help my dad with his hives 40 years ago!

Thanks for the memory Dad!

Toby Schmid
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My hives are made of red cedar. The hives give off waves of cedar mixed with honey – especially in the heat. I have an Adirondack chair sitting next to the hives that I’ll sit in and inhale deeply. If only I could bottle the smell.

Julie
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I bought organic buckwheat seed to sow in my garden this fall as a green manure. I’ve heard that buckwheat honey has a much stronger scent. It’ll be interesting.

Rusty
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Julie,

Buckwheat honey is the be-all and end-all of honey. Nothing comes close. It is the only type I used to eat. It is nirvana, heaven, the epitome of taste. I’m not the swooning type, but if I were, buckwheat honey would do it. For more on buckwheat as a crop see Buckwheat: a casualty of American agriculture.

RAM
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I read this and then had to run outside, pop the top, and deeply inhale…

Jennifer
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Excellent post and I agree with all the comments. It’s such a complex smell and not one easily described, but I love it. Beekeeping is about so much more than honey 🙂

Gary
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To me there is nothing that smells any better than the smell of a beehive. It reminds me of the smell of hot buttered popcorn.

Jim in Long Beach, California
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For several weeks I’d noticed a strange odor coming from an overgrown bougainvillea that hangs over the driveway. Then I began noticing what looked like wasps flying in a distinct pattern—coming and going out of the top of this huge bush. Then, while trimming and watering one weekend, I got attacked by a couple “wasps”.

But last weekend I discovered that the wasps were bees when I peered into the inner recesses of the huge bush and saw a huge beehive! It was the very deep hum coming from it that tipped me off. I drive my car in and out and also walk just a few feet away from the hive without disturbing its occupants. My question is, what do I do now? Do I just let it be? I’d sure like to have some of the honey being produced. How would I go about doing that?

Rusty
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Jim,

That sounds enchanting: an overgrown bougainvillea with a beehive inside. I think I’m jealous.

As for choices, you can leave the colony alone or you can try to put it in a hive. Once you put it in a hive you’ve become a beekeeper with all that it entails, including dealing with local regulations, neighbors, etc. If the colony is there own its own accord, you can just enjoy it. I’m not biased, can you tell?

You could ask a beekeeper to come and take it away in exchange for some of the honey. Or, if you are adventurous, you could put on some protective clothing and steal one of the outer combs with honey in it and leave the rest. The best time to take honey would be in the spring or early summer when it is easy for them to replace it.

Donnabee
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Fecundity, pure and simple.

Heidi
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I love the hive smell; ours have been making honey from the clover in our yard, and the smell of clover honey takes me right back to childhood, summer with my cousins sucking nectar from clover.

Erin
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This is our first year with bees. We started late—installed our package on May 12th—so I was unsure if we’d even get honey this year. I have spent the last 4 days wandering the yard trying to identify which flowering plant might be giving off the most beautifully intoxicating scent. I thought there must be some wild thing in the woods that began blooming after the last heavy rain. I was stunned to discover that the scent was coming from our hive. It is a scent that wafts through the yard, never in the same place twice, and sometimes as far as 100 feet. I would be perfectly pleased if I could leave the honey for the bees and bottle the scent instead.

Rusty
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Erin,

I love this time of year because of that. I like to stand by the hives and just inhale the scent.

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