Nov. 11, 2021

What's That Smell? - Part 1: The Bad (047)

What's That Smell? - Part 1: The Bad  (047)

Bees, honey, smoker smoke, and lots more all have their own aroma. Beekeeping is rich in its own smells. Most are fragrant, rich and a delight to work with. Some, not so much. This is a two-part series. In today’s Part 1, we looked at smells from...

Bees, honey, smoker smoke, and lots more all have their own aroma. Beekeeping is rich in its own smells. Most are fragrant, rich and a delight to work with. Some, not so much. This is a two-part series.

In today’s Part 1, we looked at smells from the smoker, which are many and varied, rich and awful, all at the same time. Then we discussed the smells of bees, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Come on along and learn what you can expect when dealing with honey, honey bees and all that comes with them, and what you already may have experienced and not thought much about. One aroma is worth a thousand words.

Watch for Part 2 - The Good, next week!


We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2021 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 47 – What's That Smell? Part 1 - The Bad


Jim Tew: Kim, how's your sense of smell, buddy?

Kim Flottum: You know, it's pretty good for some things and not good at all for other things.

Jim: Well, how is it for beehive things? Because one of the things that doesn't get discussed very much is what smells are going on at what seasons of the year. If you got any experience in this, let's talk about it if you’ve got some time.

Kim: Okay.


Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're coming to you from Honey Bee Obscura, where today, we want to begin talking with you about the various odors, good and bad, inside a beehive.

Kim: And outside of beehive.

Jim: Good point, and inside your house sometimes, for that matter, and inside the cab of your truck. It just goes on and on.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world and engaging in informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long-timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: Kim, the biggest odor that I know of, and the one that I dislike the most, has to become from our old, old friend the smoker.

Kim: Yes, I like the smell of the smoker weak and distant. If it gets in my eyes, then I don't like it, but if I smell one across the room, I like the smell of a smoker.

Jim: Can you give me some- just give me a few seconds to get my arms around that because that's the worst thing I've ever heard you say. That thing is repugnant, Kim. It smells like something was on fire and somebody threw water on it.

Figure 1  Kim likes some of this smoke-smell, Jim - not so much

Kim: Let me tell you something where that comes from. I can tell you exactly where that comes from. Do you remember the perfume from the first lady you dated in high school? I bet you do.

Jim: Okay, I'll say yes just to keep you going, I suppose.

Kim: Well, that's what a smoker does. A smoker, when I'm around a smoker, I'm doing something I enjoy doing and I've always enjoyed it. A touch of smoker smell is always pleasant for me, but too much and it becomes overpowering.

Jim: Well, I want to give in, we used to burn leaves. Can't do it now, though I want to do it now. I guess it pollutes too much, but the smell of burning leaves was always autumn. The smell of oak and hickory burning was a campfire. Why would smoke be any better? It's been such a characteristic, and I've always wondered why, Kim, after all the intelligent people who've come and gone and are still here in beekeeping, why can't we come up with something better than this smoker? But then I'm totally off the subject on this though, I think. Let's just keep it manageable. What did you burn in your smoker, Kim? What did you burn and how does that smell?

Kim: Well, there you go, because different beekeepers burn different things. It's what you got available sometimes. Sometimes, you go out and get it on purpose because you like the way it burns or like the way it smells. I use pine needles. I've used pine needles for 30 years. I planted two pine trees in my yard when I moved here and I've used their needles every summer since. That's what I use, and I got more than I need. There's lots of different types. Sometimes, I'll throw in some-- I buy a lot of wood mulch. I put around in the base of plants. Sometimes, I'll throw some of that in.

I don't have a wood lot handy or real handy to go around and get, what do they call it? Old deadwood.

Jim: Punky wood.

Kim: Punk wood. I don't have a place to get that, but I know people that do, and they burn that a lot. Some people burn just straw.

Jim: See, what I want to go with this, all these things have distinctive odors.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: Do you pick out a smoker fuel because of the odor that its got? Do you have an odor that you really like? That comes from what? You said pine straw, pine needles. I burn pine needles. It has a very classic odor, doesn't it?

Kim: It does. I like it because I got it. It comes down to that.

Jim: Well, that's true. When I was in University of Maryland, what, 200 years ago now or so it seems like, everybody was big on burning burlap. You had to go to all these places to find burlap that had been not treated with any kind of decay-resistant material and that burlap had a very distinctive odor. Now, when I smell someone on those occasions who's burning burlap, I go all the way back to my years of Maryland. I burn shavings, planer shavings by my woodshop. If I don't have any planer shavings, sometimes, you can buy animal bedding. That's usually aromatic cedar. I don't know if that's good or not.

It has a distinctive odor, it burns a long time, it can burn very hot, but I wonder if burning aromatic cedar is bad on me and my respiratory system and my bees' respiratory system. I don't think any smoke is good for either of us or the bees, but we’ve got to do something.

Kim: Yes, you're probably right there. You know what, I don't know where you keep your bee suit when you're not wearing it, but I keep mine in the garage. Every time I walk in the garage, I can smell my bee suit.

Jim: I don't know how to keep that clean. It's what - I was going to say it's a dirty secret - but it really is a dirty secret. Those bee suits are rugged, boy. They smell like smoke, and they got propolis and honey and wax all over them and my wife says, "Not in our washing machine. You can just take that outside and use our pressure washer on it."

Kim: There you go.

Jim: All those clothes have that odor. Are you leading up to the honey house into the storage building? What is that unique odor that's just the odor that's characteristic of bees when you smell old bee equipment in storage?

Kim: Yes, you walk into a commercial outfit. I'm going to say, they all smell just about the same because it's concentrated, but it's old honey, it's old propolis, it’s old bee suits, it's smokey, it's beekeeping.

Jim: Is it a good smell? It's a good smell, isn't it?

Kim: Well, I'll go back to that perfume that I mentioned earlier. Yes, it's a good smell. I walk in, I get that hint and I said, "I'm home."

Jim: I don't think I've ever seen that product readily available, Kim. Beekeeper perfume. The smell of an old smoker.

Sponsor: Betterbee is pleased to sponsor today's episode of Honey Bee Obscura Podcast. For over 40 years, Betterbee has supplied beekeepers across the country with the tools, equipment, and knowledge needed to succeed. Because many Betterbee employees are beekeepers themselves, they understand your needs and challenges and are better prepared to answer your beekeeping questions. From their colorful catalog to their supportive beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast, Betterbee truly lives up to their tagline of Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at

Jim: It all has that distinctive odor about it. It's not going to go away, is it? Nobody's come up with anything any better. I know someone will call and say, "Well, you can atomize your bees with sugar syrup." Well, I want to tell you, if you've got no nectar flow going and robbing is nearly starting and it's a full colony and you start spraying those things with sugar syrup, you're going to probably get eaten alive. It helps sometimes, but you’ve got to use a smoker. You’ve got to use a smoker.

Kim: There's another side to this coin. I like the smell of smoke because, like I said, when I'm smelling smoke, I'm just thinking beekeeping and I'm home, but you know what? Dead bees.

Jim: Oh, man. I knew you were going there. I knew you were going there.

Kim: Dead bees. That's a smell I don't like, and it is as distinctive as it can be. There's nothing else that I have ever experienced that smells as bad as a bottom board full of dead bees.

Figure 2  Decaying bees from a winterkill.  Unfortunately a common bee smell

Jim: Kim, I almost have a need to tell the people who might be listening to us who are fairly new to this that you have to get through these kinds of times, so you will know what the good times are like. When you smell dead, decaying bees, you realize how good, happy, live, healthy bees smell. It's really obnoxious, isn't it, Kim? One of the most distasteful jobs in early spring is going out and cleaning up the dead-outs and dumping all those soggy bees out.

Kim: It's sort of the “F” on your report card. Something went wrong and it's probably something you did or didn't do.

Jim: I always feel guilty. You can't blame yourself every time. Even in the wild, every beehive doesn't survive every winter, but still, when I stand there on my watch, something went wrong with that unit, and it croaked, and now I got the stink to clean up, the mess to clean up, what do you do? You just dump them right in front of the hive or do you take them someplace else, give them a proper burial?

Kim: The other side of that is when you open a hive and there's that distinctive odor that's not dead bees.

Jim: You're on a roll today, aren't you, with this whole thing? Let's just go from one bad thing-- We're going to get all these bad things done at one time. Right?

Kim: There you go.

Jim: Because I know what you're talking about. Sometimes-- If you've done things right, you can pull up in the yard and open the door of your truck and think, "Uh-oh, something's got something here --" especially if it's runaway American foulbrood.

Kim: Yes. I have had that experience one time not with my bees, I was with another beekeeper, and we pulled into the yard, and it was summer, and the windows were down, and he shut the truck off and he said, "Smell that." "Yes, I smell that," and that's what it was. It's a very distinctive, very unpleasant odor, American foulbrood. How would you characterize it?

Jim: It is sour. It has a sour degraded, decaying smell. When you said unpleasant, can I say disagreeable? Then I'll give you unpleasant because I know that it's American and I know how unpleasant what's going to happen is coming along. The odor itself smells like something soured, eggs that went bad and—

Figure 3  The dreaded odor of American foulbrood

Kim: That's probably a good, rotten description. I've got chickens and every once in a while; an egg will get laid someplace other than the nesting box and it gets ignored. Then two weeks later, some chickens running around and breaks that egg and I walk into the hen house, and I'd be yup, I know exactly what it is, it's that rotten egg smell.

Jim: I think I want pancakes in the morning for breakfast, Kim. I just don't think I want eggs for a few days. This whole thing though, I'm serious, this whole thing about the odor and the stink of-- How can you tell beekeepers who have not smelled European or American? All I can do is tell you it has a distinctive odor, it has an unpleasant distinctive odor, and you think, "What is that smell?" the first time you come along and there's no easy way to learn, to recognize those smells. If you're smelling it, something's not right.

Kim: One way is to grab a couple of frames and take them and show them to somebody that is going to be able to identify it for you but there's some of these programs on the web that you can call up with your cell phone and take a picture of and it'll identify it for you or you can just take a picture of it and take it home and show it to somebody but there's a lot of electronic things available now that you can do right in the field and you'll get a diagnosis that's correct and probably instructions on what to do next but knowing the smell is the first clue and the smell-- European foulbrood has a smell too, there's another one bacterial disease.

Jim: Yes. It's very similar but it's not the same. I would say I had a friend one time who had it, but I know what it smells like because I'd done this long enough that everything comes your way if you do it long enough. There is one new area that I want to talk about and that's the odors that are not considered to be healthy. That comes along when you're trying to treat for maybe Varroa and you're trying to sublimate, as you've been told to do to turn oxalic acid into a gaseous form and that has an odor that you don't want to be smelling in most cases, you need to wear some kind of respirator for it. There's an entirely new topic area for odors in the hive and that's these toxic odors that result sometimes from pesticides that we're using.

Kim: Yes. Long ago, I drew the line. If I got to wear a gas mask to keep bees, I'm either going to quit keeping bees or quit using gas masks so I don't have that odor. In my life, I don't use those products and I'm glad people do it. I know that they work but that's one I miss.

Jim: Well, I hope you cut me some slack because I use them because other people use them. It's recommended, it's in the technology, it's out there so I need to know what's going on. This is what's happened to me, as I would wear the respirator to keep out the odors that I didn't want to come in from the pesticides I was using, I noticed that it was also keeping out the odors of the smoker. Now, you said you like that odor, I'm saying, "Well, a little bit goes a long way with me." I've actually become comfortable saying that a respirator isn't the end of the world because I'm using smoke, which in a way is a pesticide not truly but it's a bee manipulative substance. It's an odor, I like that, I wear the respirators more often than not now.

Kim: That's an interesting phrase you used, a bee manipulator. That's what sting pheromone is too.

Jim: Yes. That's true. I'd forgotten that as an odor. How can the smell of almonds - you said bananas - how can such a pleasant smell be the end-all combat to the death for honey bees, but it is, it's almonds or cherries; that’s what it smells like. A very pleasant odor.

Kim: The only time you smell it, you know something bad is going to happen right now.

Jim: It just happened. If you smelled it, you got to be somewhere close to your nose.

Kim: You open up a hive sometimes and you'll get a whiff of it because there are some bees on the top, others are between the frames there that are got their stings out and they're wafting it up towards you and all that is get out of our house smell.

Jim: Can you sense that orientation pheromone when the bees are all fanning? You got a swarm going in?

Kim: I know, I can't smell that. I know that there are people that say that they can but it's not something that I've been able to pick up.

Jim: I want to say that I smell it but it's more like a thought than a reality because all these bees are scenting and fanning and you're thinking, "I'm smelling straw, I'm smelling hay," or something. Then you realize that it's all these thousands of bees that are blowing out this odor. I don't know if I've told you this before, I'll touch the topic and get off of it. I have a reaction, my face and around my eyes breaks out in a rash when I'm confined in a car with packages of bees or if I picked up a swarm or something and I don't know-- Told myself it's your imagination, no, it really isn't. I break out in a light rash around my eyes and nose where I'm having some allergic reaction to the…. What?  The odor or to bee hair? At this point, Kim, we're really getting out in right field because this is something that I'm not really sure that I'm even smelling but I do sense a pleasant clean odor with all those thousands of bees or scenting or when I have bee packages and I'm confined in the cab of the truck with them. Can you think of any other odors that you don't want to smell since you've just listed over and over again, the un- what's the word I would want -the undesirable smells of beekeeping?

Kim: Well, we've got a bunch of them here, that's for sure. Undesirable, unwanted, but there's a lot of good ones too.

Jim: I was wondering if you want to talk about the good ones maybe next time or at least some other time, there are good odors in beekeeping beekeepers.

Kim: I think that's a good idea. Next time let's get to good things.

Jim: Well, we'll say we got through the bad odors this time and then some other time we'll do the good odors. I wanted to go through this with you because it's such a prominent part of beekeeping that every beekeeper has to learn individually.


Kim: It's not something that you often just come up to another beekeeper and say, you ask them what they think about this smell, that smell, whatever. I hope it helped.

Jim: It helped me. I enjoyed talking about it. All right. Until we talk again about the good stuff.

Kim: Good.

Jim: Next time. Hey, thanks to everybody for listening. Hope you'll consider subscribing. Appreciate it very much. Bye-bye.

[00:18:54] [END OF AUDIO]