If you’ve ever seen beekeepers at work, you may have observed them smoking the hive. This is often essential for calming the bees. Anyone getting started in beekeeping should seriously consider getting a bee smoker.
We’ve created this guide to explain how they work and answer some of the frequently asked questions about this piece of equipment.
What’s a bee smoker?
A bee smoker is a tool used by beekeepers to puff wisps of smoke into a hive. It is often used to calm the colony during inspections, harvesting, and other beekeeping tasks. Smoking the hive 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 will stay lit for a long time. Squeezing the bellows gives the fire air which releases smoke.
What does smoke do to bees?
Smoking a hive is useful for calming the bees safely and humanely. The smoke masks the smell of isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone, two pheromones released by bees to alert them of an intrusion. Without their sense of smell, the guard bees are unable to 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 producing wax. The result is a colony of lethargic bees that are too slow to attack.
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 they get their pheromone sensitivity back 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:
- Add a starter like loosely crumpled up paper, shop towel, or cardboard to the empty cylinder of a beekeeping smoker.
- Light the material and give the bellows a few gentle puffs to encourage flames. Too much pumping will blow out the flame.
- Fill the smoker with kindling like wood shavings, pine needles, or leaves, and give a few puffs to help the fuel catch on fire.
- Once the flames are roaring out the top of the chamber, compress the tinder down to about halfway. Pack in more fuel to the top and puff the bellows vigorously until white plumes of smoke are emitted.
- Close the lid just before the tinder bursts into flames again and you’re good to go.
Fuel sources for burning in a smoker
Beekeepers have a wide range of fuel options for use in their smokers. Plenty of suppliers sell smoker fuel, but you can use everyday items around the home and yard which work fine.
Always 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 the right way can make the difference between a successful inspection and getting stung. To get the best out of this tool, follow this advice.
- Smokers get really 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 they’re acting aggressively. Too much smoke can contaminate the honey.
- Smoke can help in a tense situation, so if you get stung be sure to 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 in as much fuel as possible to avoid re-fuelling halfway through an inspection.
- Always inspect hives calmly and gently, even when smoke has been used.
- When packing in fuel, make sure 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.
How to make a bee smoker
While it’s easy to find a smoker in stores, you can also 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: you may find it useful to use smoke when removing frames to be extracted. 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 gradually adjust to the new addition.
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.
Commonly asked questions
Where can I buy a honey bee smoker?
Bee smokers are a common piece of equipment that can be sourced from most beekeeping supply stores. If your local stockist doesn’t have any, there is a huge range available online. It’s a basic device which means you can usually pick one up for under $20.
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 a few occasional puffs of smoke shouldn’t impact honey, excessive smoking may. Many beekeepers have experienced honey with a tainted, smoky flavor as a result of 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 a small amount of added convenience, most beekeepers find bellows work perfectly fine.
Is there an alternative to smoking bees?
There are alternatives to bee smokers that 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 simply 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.
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 in a docile state. It won’t replace bad 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 just walk away and come back another day when they’re not so grumpy.