What Is A Bee Smoker? Beginner’s Guide

Beekeeping smoker on a table with a beekeeping suit in the background

If you’ve ever seen beekeepers at work, you may have observed them smoking the hive. This step is often essential for calming the bees. Anyone getting started in beekeeping should seriously consider using a bee smoker.

We’ve created this guide to explain how they work and answer some frequently asked questions about this piece of equipment.

You may also like to review our list of the best bee smokers on the market.

What is a bee smoker?

Beekeepers use a bee smoker to puff wisps of smoke into the hive. It calms the colony during inspections, harvesting, and other beekeeping tasks. Smoking doesn’t harm the bees, so long as it isn’t used excessively.

Smokers are a simple device consisting of a fire chamber with a bellow attached and a nozzle where the smoke is released. Very little air gets into the chamber, so the fire inside stays lit for a long time. Squeezing the bellows gives the fire air, which releases smoke.  

What does smoke do to bees?

Smoking a hive helps calm the bees safely and humanely. The smoke masks the smell of isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone. These are two pheromones released by bees to alert them of an intrusion. Without their sense of smell, guard bees cannot trigger an alarm response which sends the hive into attack mode.

Smoke also simulates a forest fire. Bees prepare to leave the hive by gorging on honey, a vital ingredient for wax production. The result is a colony of lethargic bees that are too slow to attack.

A smoker isolated on white background with labels showing the various parts.
The components of a hive smoker.

Does smoke harm the bees?

Beekeepers have used the smoking technique for centuries with no harmful side effects to the bees. Once the smoke clears, their pheromone sensitivity returns within 20 minutes.

How to light a bee smoker

Lighting a bee smoker is much like lighting a fire at home, only on a smaller scale. Follow these steps for best results:

  1. Add a starter like loosely crumpled up paper, shop towel, or cardboard to the empty cylinder of a beekeeping smoker.
  2. Light the material and give the bellows a few gentle puffs to encourage flames. Too much pumping will blow out the flame.
  3. Fill the smoker with kindling like wood shavings, pine needles, or leaves, and give a few puffs to help the fuel catch on fire.
  4. Once the flames are roaring out the top of the chamber, compress the tinder down to about halfway. Pack more fuel to the top and puff the bellows vigorously until white plumes of smoke are given off.
  5. Close the lid just before the fuel bursts into flames again, and you’re good to go.   
A smoker billowing out smoke as wood is added to the fire chamber
Wood chips make excellent fuel for a smoker.

Fuel sources for burning in a smoker

Beekeepers have a wide range of fuel options for use in their smokers. Many suppliers sell smoker fuel, but you can use everyday items around the home and yard, which work fine.

Avoid synthetic materials that give off unpleasant smells or bleached paper that can harm the bees.

Starter: Paper or shop towel.

Fuel: wood shavings, hay, pine needles, wood pellets, egg trays, untreated twine, 100% cotton t-shirts, grass clippings, burlap.

Hive smoking tips

Using bee smokers correctly could make the difference between a successful inspection and getting stung. To get the best out of this tool, follow this advice.

  • Smokers get hot, so handle them with care.
  • Before opening the cover, puff a little smoke near the entrance.
  • Only use a few puffs of smoke unless the bees are acting aggressively. Too much smoke can contaminate the honey.
  • Smoke can help in a tense situation, so if you get stung, smoke the area.
  • Test the smoke’s temperature before using it on the hive.
  • Pump smoke at a distance of at least 5″ as heat will burn the bees’ wings.
  • Pack as much fuel as possible to avoid re-fuelling halfway through an inspection.
  • Always inspect hives calmly and gently, even when smoke is present.
  • When packing in fuel, ensure it doesn’t obstruct the air flowing from the bellows.
  • The bottom of the canister gets very hot, so be careful not to place it on plastic or anything that could easily burn.

Tip: If you enjoy learning about beekeeping equipment, check out our article on hive tools or discover how bee vacuums work.

How to make a bee smoker

While it’s easy to find a smoker in stores, it’s possible to make your own DIY smoker with some based tools and materials. Check out this video which shows you a super-easy way to construct a smoker.

When do I need to use a smoker?

Keeping a smoker on hand is always good practice. Bees can be unpredictable, and you don’t know when they may become aggressive. In addition to using smoke when bees are defensive, some common reasons to pull out the smoker include:

Extracting honey: smoking frames during extraction may be worthwhile. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll end up with smoky-flavored honey.

Adding a new queen: the pheromones given off by a new queen can cause a stir in the hive. Smoke masks them and allows the colony to adjust to the new addition gradually.

Combining hives and splits: major disruptions may cause bees to attack or abscond. Smoke reduces the bees’ stress level and is more likely to keep them in the hive.

A beekeeper smoking the hive to help keep the bees settled
Keep some distance between the smoker and your bees.

Commonly asked questions

Where can I buy a honey bee smoker?

Bee smokers are a popular piece of equipment found at most beekeeping supply stores. If local stockists don’t have any, they are readily available online.

Look for a smoker that comes with a metal heat shield around it. It means you’re much less likely to get burns from the surface of the chamber.

What does smoke do to honey?

Honeycomb capping is permeable and can absorb vapors from the air. While occasional puffs of smoke shouldn’t impact honey, excessive smoking may. Many beekeepers have experienced honey with a tainted, smoky flavor due to smoking. Studies have also demonstrated the effect of smoke on the volatile characteristics of honey. You can check out their findings here.

What is an electric bee smoker?

An electric bee smoker is a standard smoker that replaces bellows with a battery-powered fan. While it provides some added convenience, most beekeepers agree bellows work perfectly.

Is there an alternative to smoking bees?

Some alternatives to bee smokers offer greater portability and can be used in areas where fire bans are in place. One popular option is liquid bee smoke which is easy to carry and won’t cause fires. Beekeepers working with a docile colony may spray water, sugar water, or an essential oil like lemongrass or aniseed oil.

Who invented the beehive smoker?

The hive smoker with bellows was invented by Moses Quinby in 1873. He was an American beekeeper considered the father of practical beekeeping. Get a more in-depth history of bee smokers here.

Further reading: The top 4 ways to clean a hive smoker.

Summing up

For most beekeepers, the bee smoker is a commonly used piece of equipment, along with the hive tool. It is a safe, bee-friendly way to help the hive stay calm during beekeeper visits.

Smoke is only one piece of the puzzle for keeping bees docile. It won’t replace poor beekeeping. Timing visits correctly, using gentle movements, and wearing appropriate clothing should all be considered.

As beekeepers develop experience, they’ll learn to read their bees. A hive has good and bad days, like humans. Sometimes, it’s best to walk away and return another day when they’re not so grumpy.

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