The stereotypical beekeeper has a Langstroth hive, is kitted out with the proverbial bee suit – and a smoker in hand. Most of us have seen that image of the beekeeper wafting smoke over the beehive. But why is this done?
What happens when you use a smoker?
Using a smoker creates a fascinating – and useful – reaction in bees. The effect of a smoker is often referred to as “calming” the bees. In fact, their response is due to them coming quite the opposite of calm, as we will see below.
But regardless of why smokers work, the reaction is very useful to beekeepers. When you waft smoke over bees they will typically retreat into the hive, leaving you with an area to work that is less active with bees and with fewer angry bees flying around you.
An example of where a smoker can be useful is when replacing a box on top of another box, during an inspection. As you place the box down, it is sadly easy to squash bees around the edges of the boxes, as you lay one box on the other. No beekeeper enjoys that! But quickly applying some smoke will result in some of your bees vacating the top and edges of the boxes, reducing the chances of bees being flattened. This is just one example of how a smoker can help.
Why smokers work
The answer to this isn’t quite as straightforward as was thought for many years. For a long time it was assumed that bees dive into the hive as a reaction to a perceived fire. Bees don’t like to just leave a hive and “park” themselves elsewhere. Doing so leaves valuable honey resources behind. So the theory is that bees know they will need to leave soon, so they dive into the hive to fill themselves with honey from their reserves.
Recently this theory has been challenged and some beekeepers doubt this is what’s happening. But there is another factor that is more widely accepted (though not necessarily contrary to the “fill up with honey” theory). This is related to why bees seem to be calm when smoke is applied, even when climbing back into the hive.
When bees sense danger they use the alarm pheromone. This is a way to communicate imminent danger and the message can spread through the colony very quickly. At such times, the colony is “activated” to defend its turf.
The use of smoke masks the attack pheromone, effectively confusing the bees and preventing the alarm pheromone spreading through the hive. Thus, the potential for an angry colony is diminished significantly.
Regardless of the underlying reason for why smokers work, it is clear that they do. As such, the smoker is an important tool for the beekeeper.
Types of smoker
With one exception, the basic design of the bee smoker is relatively stable, having been around for hundreds of years.
Fuel (see below) is added to a cylindrical burner. The small dimensions of the burner means oxygen is used quickly and the flame is extinguished. This leaves the fuel emitting a cool, light smoke.
Attached to the burner are bellows, conveniently designed so the beekeeper can hold and squeeze at the same time, with one hand if necessary. Doing so pushes air and therefore oxygen into the burner, giving the fuel a new lease of life. The result is a puff of smoke.
The basic, stainless steel smoker does the job just fine. But never forget that there are many available now and there have been many others over the years, to the extent that some are collectible!
Preparing a smoker
Believe it or not, even today the smoker is considered by many beekeepers to be challenging, in terms of how to get it lit and keep it lit. There are many fuels that can be used and, with a little practice, it really shouldn’t be too difficult for the beekeeper.
The basic steps (which almost take longer to document here than to actually do!) are:
- Grab some crumpled newspaper and light with a match
- Place in the bottom of the smoker, perhaps using your hive tool to push the burning paper into place
- Squeeze the bellows a few times to make sure the newspaper is maintaining a flame
- Add some kindling, a little at a time, such as dry twigs to the point where the burner is around 3/4 full
- Let the kindling burn for a few minutes, using the bellows to help it along
- When the kindling is glowing, add you fuel of choice (see below)
- Keep using the bellows until you have a cool, white smoke then close the top
If you’ve done your job, the smoker should remain lit for much longer than the duration of your inspection.
Here’s how one beekeeper lights his smoker.
Like everything in beekeeping, you will hear of “I swear by….” fuels! Thankfully, there are many choices. Just make sure you don’t use anything toxic. That normally means use natural materials, like dry leaves or pine needles. Of course, commercial bee smoker fuels are available though, frankly, unnecessary.
How to use a smoker
A smoker can be used initially and occasionally during an inspection, but not to the extent the neighborhood believes you are burning a house down! New beekeepers have a tendency to overuse the smoker, probably due to some assumption that more smoke equals calmer bees.
In many situations, especially with more docile bees, a few puffs of smoke at the entrance may suffice (note: always try to approach from the side or behind the hive, rather than wander in the front). Additionally, if you are removing boxes for a full inspection then, as you expose a lower box, you may want to apply a brief puff of smoke across the top of the exposed frames.
As we mentioned, a few brief squeezes of the bellows should be sufficient. We’ve seen videos of beekeepers blasting their hives with 30-60 seconds of smoke. Not necessary!
After applying a few puffs, wait a few seconds. About 20 seconds should be enough for your bees to get the message.
Finally, there’s no reason to smoke all sides of a hive – top, bottom and all corners. In fact, that’s a bad move.
Should you use a smoker at every inspection?
Opinions differ on this. It is very easy to find comments on the web and in books that a hive inspection should never be conducted without the use of a smoker. Quite honestly, if you have the time, energy and discipline to do that then go for it! You won’t make a mistake by using a smoker every time, providing it isn’t overused!
A comment on a web site recently described an example where a beekeeper wanted a quick look at his hive to check something. Because it was a very quick to check he decided to do so without suiting up or using a smoker. Of course, he got stung three times and vowed never to inspect a hive again without a smoker. Ever!
He went into his hive without protective clothing or a smoker. He got stung. His conclusion that inspecting a hive without a smoker was the proverbial “bad thing”. See the reasonably obvious flaw here? It is very likely that if he had worn protective clothing he would have checked the hive without being stung (since that’s exactly why the protective clothing is there!). The lack of a smoker wasn’t, in itself, the reason he got stung.
As something of an editorial, too often the smoker is seen as some sort of “safety net”.
A smoker can help and there is little downside to using it, in moderation. As such, some beekeepers simply make themselves a rule to use a smoker at every inspection.
But there are other factors that affect your bees and their “nerves”. An essential factor is your manner around the beehive. A calm, slow, methodical presence around the hive can leave your bees perfectly calm. It’s not a guarantee at all, but it can certainly help.
The key here is to understand your bees. If you have bees that are generally docile (Italians, for example) and you find that inspections seem to be “low stress” to your bees, try an inspection without the smoker. Have it lit up and on hand, in case you need it, but you may be surprised at just how calm your bees are.
The other side of this story is that you may find your bees need a little help to stay calm each time, in which case it’s perfectly reasonable to use a smoker each time.
In fact, if the smoker helps YOU calm down then that can rub off on your bees, through your actions. That’s another reason to consider using a smoker!