You may decide to become a beekeeper to connect with the environment and to feel the thrill of learning about bees, while others might have pollination or sustainability as a motive. But probably for all beekeepers, getting to harvest their own honey is the moment they will be really longing for. So imagine you’ve worked and patiently waited for the harvest season to arrive. And, to your surprise, you realize that your honey smells bad!
There are several reasons why your honey might have a distinct, unpleasant smell. Sometimes it’s absolutely normal and there’s nothing to worry about, and other times a serious problem is the cause. One common reason is fermentation, while another source of this bad smell could simply be the surrounding plants’ nectar. But if you’re unlucky, your hive could even be infected.
If you do a little search on the web, you will quickly find out that there are a lot of beekeepers out there reporting that their honey smells bad and wondering what’s wrong. Depending on the exact source of the problem, beekeepers could be stating that their honey is giving off a sour, acidic or kind of alcoholic smell. Other times, they claim to be detecting an ammonia scent, whereas is some cases they are describing a horrible smell that reminds them of a rotting animal.
So if you find yourself in a similar situation with some stinky honey in your hands, you are definitely not alone. And a bad smell (provided that you can stand it!) does not necessarily mean that your honey is not edible – consuming it or not depends to some extent on the source of the odor problem. So let’s take a further look into the three most common reasons why honey smells bad, as well as some tips to fix each problem.
Reason 1: It Could Be Fermented
What exactly causes honey to ferment? Raw honey, when it has not been pasteurized, contains about 18-19% water. If the honey’s moisture rises above that level, and the environment temperature is rather high (above 21oC), yeast and enzymes will develop. These types of yeast and enzymes are naturally deposited there by your worker bees and will start multiplying if conditions allow it. This will mean the start of the fermentation process. Therefore, moisture and heat are the two key factors causing your honey to ferment. Fermentation is highly likely to occur when you harvest your honey too early or when water gets inside your honey storage container. Although for some people, fermented honey is considered to be completely safe for consumption and to offer even more benefits than normal honey, its weird appearance, smell and taste could sometimes mean that your honey will lose up to half of its value if you try to sell it.
For more information, see our article: What is the proper moisture content for honey?
Fermented honey is a common issue beekeepers will encounter. When honey is left unpasteurized and becomes fermented, it turns from liquid to a bubbly and foamy substance, especially at the top. As carbon dioxide is produced due to the fermentation, pressure rises. And this is why it is important to not completely fill your honey storage containers.
Furthermore, when your honey is fermented, you will notice that its taste becomes rather sour or sort of alcoholic and unpleasant. Fermentation will also give your honey a sharp, acidic smell, which will probably remind you of yeast or even vinegar.
To avoid facing a fermentation problem, you should first make sure that you don’t extract the honey from your beehive too early. If your honey is sealed with beeswax cappings, then is it unlikely to ferment. Once you collect it, you need to ensure it has the right concentration before storing it away. To do so, you can use a honey refractometer, with which you will be able to measure your honey’s moisture. If the level of moisture is right, you can store your honey right away – if it’s higher, you can remove the excess water with the use of a dehydrator. Storing it inside the refrigerator could also help avoid fermentation, as the yeast will not develop at low temperatures.
But if your honey does get fermented in the end, there is still a way you can fix it, as you can place the container in hot water in order to liquefy it back. If you heat it to around 62-65oC for about 15-30 minutes and immediately cool it, you will be able to pasteurize it. Pasteurization will help prevent fermentation, but will also destroy some of your honey’s taste and aroma.
Reason 2: Your Hive Could Be Diseased
Honeybees are subject to various diseases and abnormal beehive conditions. Some of them are simpler to handle, while others can be very contagious and dangerous, so being able to recognize the first signs of disease in your beehive is crucial. Diseases occur due to the presence of pathogens, the environmental conditions, as well as your own bees’ genetics. Some of the most common diseases your beehive might experience are varroa mites, nosemosis, amebiosis, chalkbrood or stonebrood, and of course American Foulbrood (AFB). American Foulbrood is the most widespread and dangerous disease of all, and it can affect even the strongest beehives. It is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Paenibacillus larvae, which infects the brood, weakens the colony and ends up killing it. The worst part of AFB is that it cannot be cured, which means that to manage AFB you will have to destroy your infected colony.
Depending on the exact disease you might be facing, the symptoms might differ but the appearance and smell of your beehive will for sure change significantly. Darker brood cells, with perforated or sunken cappings are a common indicator of AFB. Infected larvae will gradually turn dark brown, liquefied and sticky. When AFB is the case, your beehive will also have a distinctive smell. As implied by the name, this smell is really bad. Some beekeepers compare it to the smell of a dead rotting animal. Its intensity will depend on the number of infected larvae and other factors such as the temperature. However, the smell alone cannot determine whether your beehive is infected or not.
If your beehive is diseased, being able to fix the problem is uncertain. In some cases, the administration of antibiotics might be enough, while in other cases it will not be that simple. Once again, the key here is observation. Your beehive should be regularly inspected, preferably during spring and autumn. When inspecting your hive for AFB, you should carefully remove all frames and check brood comb for any signs of irregular brood pattern. If AFB is at an early stage, there might only be a couple of brood cells showing signs of the disease, so it is very important to ensure that you inspect every single brood comb. If AFB is detected, you need to destroy your beehive, either with the use of radiation or by burning all beehive parts and burying the remains.
Reason 3: The Distinct Smell/Taste Of Surrounding Plants
Another reason why your honey smells bad could be the surrounding plants. The source of your smelly and weird-tasting honey would be their nectar. As your bees collect nectar and gradually turn it into honey, the chemical composition of the plants they are taking the nectar from will determine your honey’s characteristics.
Certain plants can affect both the smell and the taste of your honey. These plants mostly belong to the aster family and include goldenrod, dandelion and daisy-like flowers that are arranged in clusters. As soon as your worker bees will start turning their nectar into honey, the smell can be too much. When nectar is the problem, your honey’s smell will probably remind you of the flower itself, with the scent of vinegar or even ammonia. Your honey’s taste, on the other hand, will be nothing like the smell it gives off.
Although this kind of honey does not smell terrible, many beekeepers prefer to leave it for their bees rather than harvesting it. And given the fact that plants in the aster family are mostly fall-flowering plants, it is quite easy to do so. You can simply extract the honey from your beehive during early fall and then let your bees keep the honey that will be produced next to make it through the upcoming winter.
Stinky honey is a rather common situation that beekeepers all around the world face. The nature of the smell actually depends on the reason causing the problem. You will sometimes be able to fix it or just ignore it and let your bees move on with their lives, while other times there won’t be very much you can do. However, there is surely one thing you can do. Focus on learning as much as you can about your bees and carefully inspect your beehive on a regular basis. This way you will be able to avoid common mistakes and detect any possible early signs of the problem.