“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.