I don’t get many emails from nd.gov, so the ones I get tend to attract my attention. What does the state of North Dakota want with me this time? I wonder.
The sour smell of curdled milk
It turns out the message was from the curator of a history museum, and his question concerned a smelly bee suit. He explained that the museum had recently accepted a donation of a used beekeeper’s suit, but the staff was disturbed by the powerful smell. The curator described it as “baby spit up—curdled milk with the smell of stomach acid.” He said they couldn’t figure out why the suit smelled so bad or why the odor was so strong.
The curator mentioned that the suit had been used in both North Dakota and in the California almond orchards. He did some Internet research and discovered that some flowers produce bad-smelling honey, so he wondered if the foul smell could come from aster honey.
A good beekeeping mystery
First, I eliminated the aster honey: it can smell bad but not like that. Whenever I smell that sour, vomit-y smell, I’m reminded of lactic acid bacteria. If we assume the odor on the suit was not from an obvious cause—that is, the beekeeper didn’t get sick on it—I think the odor could have resulted from lactic acid bacteria living among the fibers.
Lactic acid bacteria are common organisms that decompose sugars in anaerobic (low oxygen) environments. They often cause spoilage in foods, including wine, and the scent of lactic acid bacteria is often described as “sour milk, cheesy, or rancid.”
Honey bees are loaded with lactic acid bacteria
We know that lactic acid bacteria live in the honey bee gut. In fact, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have found 13 different species living in the honey stomach of healthy bees. These bacteria metabolize sugars such as glucose, fructose, and maltose, all of which are found in nectar and honey.
Now we can assume that some of the gut bacteria are excreted in honey bee feces. And we can also assume that bee feces frequently adorns a beekeeper’s clothing, along with drips of honey and nectar.
If the suit was well-used and then stored in a low-oxygen environment such as the bottom of a plastic bucket or a toolbox in the back of a pickup, a large number of these bacteria could thrive on the bits of bee feces and the splatters of honey. Let the suit incubate in that warm, low-oxygen, food-rich environment for a few weeks and I’m sure you could nurture something that smelled really gross.
A second guess: butyric acid
I was pretty content with this theory until I remembered that some beekeepers use butyric acid to remove bees from honey supers. Butyric acid is a component of human vomit and the source of its characteristic odor. The smell is strangling and offensive, and it could very possibly be the real culprit here. The thing that confuses me is the description of “baby spit-up,” which to me is much milder than butyric acid, which is downright disgusting.
Of course, it’s impossible to establish the cause without seeing or smelling the suit in person, something I’m happy to miss. So I guess our smelly suit will remain an unpleasant mystery.
In any case, I wonder: Do people really donate filthy beekeeping suits to museums? Without washing them first? Wonders never cease.
Honey Bee Suite