When it comes to beekeeping tools, a smoker is one of the must-have tools of every beekeeper! This simple tool makes the bees more manageable, protects the bees and also protects the beekeeper. What’s so magical about the effect of smoke on honey bees? Let’s explore why beekeepers use smoke to manage their bees.
Historical Use of Smoke in Beekeeping
Historically bees were not kept at all. Honey, like many other wild foods, was obtained through foraging rather than farming. Native Americans used puffball fungus as a means to pacify bees. Burning the fungus, it allowed them to harvest the wild honey without getting stung. Some cultures used campfires, or a burning branch to force the bees away from their hives.
The first beekeepers kept bees in a skeps. Skeps could be made from clay or woven baskets. You may be familiar with the skeps, as even today, the woven skep is a common symbol representing bee hives or beekeeping. While skeps allowed beekeepers to provide a home for bees, a skep didn’t allow a beekeeper to harvest honey without destroying the hive.
How Does Smoke Calm Bees?
The use of smoke to calm bees has not always been well understood, however through observation and advances in our understanding of the behavior of bees, smoke works in a few different ways to calm bees.
Throughout a worker bee’s life, she will have many different roles within the hive. One of the roles in a worker bee’s life is the role of a guard bee. Guard bees spend their time at the entrance of the hive on guard looking for intruders. Undoubtedly a beekeeper preparing for a hive inspection certainly appears threatening to the colony, especially in our astronaut-like protective wear!
When guard bees sense danger, they release an alarm pheromone called isopentyl acetate from a gland near their stingers. . Pheromones have a distinct smell that is sensed by the other bees. This triggers an alarm response in the rest of the colony. Smoke simply masks the smell of the alarm pheromone. Since only a few bees are on guard duty, the remaining bees go about their work while a beekeeper inspects the beehive. The smoke has only a temporary effect on the bee’s sense of smell and disrupts bee communication. The bees’ natural pheromone sensitivity returns after a short amount of time. When we sense the bees are becoming irritated, we give them a few more puffs of smoke to calm them down again.
The second way that smoke is thought to affect bees is that smoke triggers a survival response to natural threats. A forest fire is devastating to a bee colony, destroying their home, their food supplies, and their offspring. When bees sense a forest fire, by an abundance of smoke, their initial reaction is survival mode!
Bees have the unique ability to fill their honey stomach with honey should they need to abandon their beehive. Filling their honey stomachs enables them to take valuable resources with them that will be necessary to rebuild the colony. As the bees gorge on honey, they become lethargic and less likely to sting, as their main objective is the survival of the colony, not the protection of their current hive.
The Modern Bee Smoker
As beekeepers began to learn how smoke had the ability to calm bees, they looked for better ways to deliver and control the smoke. Moses Quinby invented the first modern bee smoker in 1873. His unpatented design was his gift to the beekeeping community. This simple design has been tweaked over the years, but the tin chamber, bellows, and nozzle have remained part of the overall design of modern smokers.
Moses Quinby is considered the father of commercial beekeeping in the United States. He built a large apiary with over 1200 hives in the 1800s. Beekeepers of the time struggled to keep a consistent smoke supply. While a burning stick would work, it was quickly burned leaving the beekeeper without sufficient smoke to calm the bees throughout the process.
The bee smoker he designed included a fire box, where flammable materials are lit on fire. The lit material burned within the fire chamber. The bellow of the smoker, pushes air through the firebox, feeding the smoldering tinder. The nozzle allows the beekeeper to aim the smoke, effectively using the smoke right where it is needed. While his design changed beekeeping, other inventors improved upon his design to better control the smoke and reduce the need for an active fire that simply bellowed continuous smoke. Tracy F. Bingham was issued the first patent in 1878.
Anatomy of a Modern Bee Smoker
While it’s been about 150 years since Quinby invented his beekeeping smoker, its overall design is quite similar to modern smokers. Typically constructed from stainless steel, a bee smoker is a very basic device.
The fire chamber is the heart of the smoker, unlike the original design, the fire chamber is now protected by a metal cage called a heat shield to help protect beekeepers from burns. The goal of the fire chamber is to build a smoldering fire, not an open flame. The closed fire chamber limits oxygen to feed the fire.
The bellows are an important part of the design. When a beekeeper needs to light the smoker or smoke the bees, they simply squeeze the bellows. This forces air through the fire chamber and creates a puff of smoke out the nozzle of the smoker. The entire smoker is designed for one-hand use.
The nozzle of the smoker is used to direct the smoke. When beekeepers used a smoking branch, they were unable to control the burning of the branch or aim the smoke. Both problems were corrected with a simple design that has stood the test of time.
Affordable Must-Have Tool for EVERY Beekeeper
A smoker is such a simple device to help keep bees and the beekeeper happy! Priced right for every family!
Popular Bee Smoker Fuel Materials
Beekeepers use a wide variety of materials depending on the fuel material they have available. Historically, animal dung was a common resource used to smoke bees!
Choose a fuel source that is readily available and even better FREE!
There are many different types of fuel material that burns quickly that can be used for kindling fuel. Our favorite smoker fuel is pine needles. They are readily available in our area, easy to collect, and easy to dry and store. They are also a great fuel source that stays lit.
One of the most important decisions is to choose a fuel material that is a natural materials that is free from any chemicals. Toxic fumes are dangerous to the bees, and to the beekeepers and could contaminate the beeswax and honey.
Lighting a Beehive Smoker
Lighting a smoker is much like lighting any fire. In the bottom of the smoker, place your fire starter. Some people prefer a crumpled piece of paper at the bottom of the smoker, or a piece of fabric. You can use your hive tool to push the paper to the bottom.
Once the starter fuel is lit, additional fuel is layered on top. Layer the fuel according to how long you need the smoker to remain lit. If you’ll be in and out of the hives, you may not need as much fuel as you would for several hours in the apiary.
Personally, Philip uses a torch to start his smoker. He is able to skip adding a starter fuel and simply add the fuel (the pine needles). The fuel is ignited with the torch. It’s quick and easy!
When lit correctly, the smoke should be cool smoke. The temperature of the smoke will be determined by the fire inside. You aren’t looking for a raging fire, you want a smoldering fire that stays lit. With each puff of the bellows, the air inside fuels the gentle burn and creates smoke. The goal is not to singe the wings of the bees, but to simply use their natural instincts to calm and disrupt the communication of protective bees.
Proper Use of Smoke
While smoke does not cause any lasting effects on honey bees when used properly, care should be taken to use it correctly.
As a new beekeeper keep in mind that you only want to use enough smoke to subdue the bees. In normal circumstances, it’s not necessary to create a smoke screen to conceal your entrance. Follow these basic steps to effectively smoke the bees.
Simple Bee Smoking Technique
- When you approach the hive, use the bellows and give the bees a few puffs of smoke near the hive entrance.
- Next crack the lid and give the bees a little smoke in the top box. Again just a few puffs should be all you need.
- Use additional puffs of smoke as needed to subdue the bees.
If Philip observes the bees becoming more aggressive, he gives them a bit more smoke. In some cases, he places the smoker on the side of the hive by placing it on a neighboring box. This allows the smoke to gently drift across the open hive. It’s an effective way to keep the hive calm while you work which does not provide any direct smoke, just a gentle breeze of smoke.
Sometimes, especially if we’ve been stung, we might use the smoker and smoke ourselves. Once a beekeeper is stung, the stinger can remain in the area of the sting. This releases alarm pheromones to other bees. By smoking ourselves, we help subdue the state of alarm in our presence and hopefully avoid being stung multiple times.
It is important not to use too much smoke, as too much smoke can aggravate the bees. Additionally, soot particles can adhere to the honeycomb, giving honey, especially comb honey, a smoky smell or flavor.
Extinguishing the Smoker
Once you are finished, extinguish the smoker. There are a lot of different ways to do this. Philip has a cork that he puts into the nozzle of the smoker, this cuts off the air supply and will extinguish the fire. An alternative idea is he has a coffee can, where he can dump the contents of the smoker, allowing the smoker to be put away properly, without any flammable material still inside. The remaining fuel can be placed into a fire-safe surface, maybe a fire pit.
Remember that the smoldering fuel inside the smoker is in a controlled environment. When you dump the contents out, it’s not unusual for the fire to flare up a bit, when it has more oxygen available. Just be aware and be careful as you dump it.
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Alternatives to Bee Smokers
While a traditional smoker is an effective and safe way to keep bees calm, some beekeepers prefer not to use smoke. As an alternative beekeepers use sugar water spray or essential oils to calm bees. We have not used these methods ourselves, as we have been happy with the ease of smoking and the results we’ve experienced.
Happy Bees, Happy Beekeeper
The use of smoke to keep bees calm ensures a safe working environment for not only the beekeeper but also the bees. Honey bees that are calm, sting less, which is always fatal for the bees.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.