miscellaneous musings

Why do my hives smell like meat?

Last week I wrote that my hives smelled like meat. This created something of a stir. Some folks wanted to know why, while others wrote to tell me my hives were dead or dying. Others were confused . . . or thought I was.

For many people, odors are strongly correlated with specific memories. Often, just a hint of an odor reminds us of a place or time—or even an emotion—we experienced when we first smelled something new.

The butcher shop smell that is firmly planted in my mind originated during my Pennsylvania childhood. I was frequently sent to the local IGA to pick up a cut of meat. My grandmother would sometimes phone in her order, or sometimes write it on the outside of a brown paper sack, and then send me to fetch it.

The butcher had a place in the back of the store that always smelled the same. I would stand on tip-toes so I could watch the man in a white blood-spattered apron wrap the meat in paper, tie it with string, and use a black crayon to scribble a price on the small parcel. Then I carried it to the checkout girl who wrote the price in a notebook and sent me off with a small piece of hard candy.

Oddly enough, my husband knows the butcher shop smell too. He remembers it from an IGA butcher in Quebec where his family purchased meat long ago. He doesn’t associate the larval smell with the butcher smell like I do, but he says it’s close. “If a meat counter smelled like that today,” he says, “the health department would shut ‘em down.”

His theory about the smell is that it came from the blood-soaked wooden butcher blocks and planked wooden floors that were common in those days. The surfaces, floors, and utensils were kept as clean as possible, but nevertheless, the wood soaked up the “juices” and retained the unique butcher shop aroma.

It wasn’t a bad odor—not like something rotten—but just the residual smell that accumulated from years of dressed carcasses. I’m told that wood has its own antibacterial properties, so maybe that’s why we’re still here today. Who knows?

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve eaten red meat, but when I’m near a brood-producing hive, the odor puts me right back in that IGA. My theory is that meat is high in protein. Larvae is also high in protein. And basically, protein is protein. Bears, raccoons, birds, skunks and many other hungry predators will risk hordes of angry stingers in hopes of scoring a high-protein snack. Heck, even humans eat fried bee larvae (I hear it’s good with beer).

In the spring when brood production is high, thousands of uncapped cells are laden with larvae—packages of meat arranged in cute little cubicles. While the adult bees fan the hive to keep it cool and dehydrate the honey, the scent of proteinaceous larvae is fanned from the hive as well . . . and that is why my hives smell like meat.

A honey bee hive is a complex place, and it doesn’t surprise me that different people smell different things. I believe that “hive smell” is a mix of honey, wax, propolis, woodenware, adult bees, and brood, and I believe that individuals have varying degrees of sensitivity to each of the components.

It also changes with the season. In the fall, when little brood is being raised, I’m much more likely to smell the honey. On really hot days, I’m more apt to smell the beeswax. Even though I recognize all the different odors as belonging to a beehive, I can definitely smell the season.


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  • That’s an excellent bit of informative writing! I learned several things! Thanks!

  • Rusty,

    After reading the first post, I did pay attention the next time I was in the hive. I smell only a sweet aroma. Soon enough though it will smell of Goldenrod.


  • Rusty, everything is good with beer, even ice cream.

    I am of the opinion that when there is larvae being raised, there is also that nice ferment smell of bee bread. That strong smell mixes well with the larvae smell to produce the ‘meet market’ smell you speak of. I had one person relate it to peaches. Canned, dried, or fresh, I don’t know. But to each his, or her, own.


  • Rusty, your childhood story of going to butcher shop really triggered some memories for me when talking about how the butcher wrapped the meat in white paper, tied with string and wrote the price on the outside with a black crayon! Sure reminded me of my childhood errands! Thanks!

  • Thanks for this. Now I understand this strange and strong, almost repulsive smell which comes out of the hive about the month of May. I was told that it was due to EFB and that what I was smelling was the smell of death. But when I had a look, last year, I could only see very healthy combs, brood and bees.

    It is reassuring and a good sign that the queen is laying then.

  • Hi Rusty,
    I was wondering can you safely feed sugar water to your bees when using Apistan? I’m not treating them yet, but I will be very soon.
    Thank you,

    • LK,

      Yes, you can feed sugar syrup while treating with Apistan. The most important thing is to keep honey supers off so honey for human consumption is not tainted by the chemical.

  • Scent memory is very powerful in humans. I learned a lot about it from making candles. And having had 6 sisters, along with the chandlery, I’ve learned that men and women have slightly different reactions. It’s no surprise that you and your husband recall that scent a little differently. 🙂

  • Hi Rusty,

    Our hives seem to have the “rotten” smell In late August, close to harvest time. We always thought it was the golden rod.