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.