The Smell of Bees


Image: Wikimedia.

A friend called me over to her house today after her gardeners complained about a beehive. We both marched around her yard peering at the eaves of her house. All we found were a handful of wasps.

Then I smelled it–that distinctive, slightly sweet but hard to describe smell that beehives put off. I looked up through a bougainvillea bush and found the hive–living in a garage wall next door to my friend’s house.

If you know what this smell is, please leave a comment as I’ve been unable to find a good answer. I’m guessing that it’s a mixture of many smells: fermenting honey, pollen, wax, propolis, pheromones, etc. And I’m sure that the bees can parse out these smells as easily as we skip around the internet. Micheal Thiele describes beehives as, “a giant nose.”

To us this hive smell is a complex mixture of smell notes, like a good bottle of wine. I have a feeling that to the bees it’s their internet: a complex network of information.

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  1. It must be like being able to smell mushrooms in the woods,hard to explain what you are smelling but it always comes with wild mushrooms.

    I love hearing about other peoples sensory intakes when they spend a lot time outdoors.

  2. We’ve always thought of it as a heavy mixture of wax, honey, and wood with sort of musky undertones. It’s quite distinct, especially in the fall. We were raking leaves last fall (a lot like the labor of Sisyphus when you live in a clearing in the woods, as we do) and John mentioned how strong the smell from our bee yard was. If we could smell it, he reasoned, all the local bears could, too. A prescient remark, as the hives suffered a big bear attack in September, after which we strengthened our fortifications.

  3. I’ve never really thought about how to describe it, other than I always just assumed it was the honey that I was smelling. But now that I think about it, I can see that as too simplistic. Now I have something interesting to ponder while in the Zen-like state of tending the hive: what smell is it and what are they trying to tell me.

    Donna: I have often thought the same thing about predators smelling the hives. I’m glad that I’ve only ever seen 1 bear on my property in suburban Central FL. I hope you’ve got some good protection where you are!

    • There’s a single bear as far as I can tell who makes his (her?) rounds through this area every few months. We’ve had visits in the past and had one hive tipped over last year, but this September it was a major attack: I found pieces of the hive strewn at least 20 feet away. Amazingly, the queen was still alive and the hive is doing quite well right now. Because our other hives were so strong, we were able to steal some bees and brood for this hive and have been able to build it up before winter.

      We have a stockade fence around the bee yard and the entrance area is now a solid five foot stretch of plywood with nails sticking up. I also invested in four “Nite Guards”, one for each side of our enclosure. So far, so good.

  4. The hive is a youtube channel of flowers except it is in smellivision. To me the sound of the hive is a part of the smell.

  5. This must come with the presence of honey. My hive is new and did not get to make honey stores this year and have to honestly say have not noted such a scent. Am feeding syrup outside the hive and had not seen any raiders to it. That alone must not be enough, it must have to do with the scent of the honeyed hive. Thanks for the info

  6. I love the smell of my beehives. They smell delicious. 🙂 I start to smell them when I’m around 10 feet away, as I walk up to them, and I always inhale deeply and think “mmmmmmmmmm”.

    I just assumed the smell was a mixture of honey and beeswax, although I don’t know for sure. To me it smells sweet and yummy, like honey and butter.

  7. Maybe its Bee-O….heh heh heh
    no seriously maybe its the Bees odour.
    When we consume lots of alcohol we smell like it same with Garlic but its not quite like it because it mixes with our own body odour. So because Bees work with wax, pollen and honey maybe it mixes with bee odour and en-mass gives of the distinct scent. 🙂

    • Now that’s funny! Bee-O!

      I think it’s the scent of my Grandfather’s spirit keeping my bee’s safe…he was a beekeeper for many, many years. When I smell that sweet, earthy scent I think of him.

  8. I’ve enjoyed the sort-of-sweet barnyard scent that combines with the smell of the wax and the honey on a warm day.

  9. I asked Kirk this same question a few days ago, after I got almost drunk from the wonderful smells coming from my hive. He said he thought it was from the honey-making process, when the bees are regurgitating and evaporating moisture off the nectar and converting it to honey. Makes sense to me.

  10. The smell that comes to mind is a mix of honey, lumber, beeswax, and a meadow in the summertime. It’s a gorgeous mix of earthy bases with sweet high notes. I adore the smell of a beehive.

    (This makes me think about how human attraction may be tied to individual smell. Can you imagine someone having beehive as their personal scent!?)

  11. Now your speaking my language!

    For a perfumer, especially one working with naturals, that bee scent produces an animalic note that can be grouped along with ambergris, hyraceum, musk, castoreum or civet. It can be indolic (fecal) like jasmine or orange blossom while having a floral, tobacco, hay-like sweetness. Finally, propolis adds that medicinal, antiseptic note. Very complex. It’s one of my favorites.

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