How to use a Bee Smoker
Smoke has been used by beekeepers for centuries, even before the modern bee smoker was invented. Bees can feel threatened when anything which resembles an enemy approaches their beehive. That probably includes you! So no matter how docile your bees are, you need something to pacify them during hive inspections. Smoke has the effect of calming bees and allows you to get on with your work around hives without a load of angry bees butting into your bee suit.
So how do you use a bee smoker? Light the smoker before you approach the beehive. Begin by lighting a fire in the base of the fire chamber. Pump the bellows a few times to produce flames. Little by little add fuel to the chamber while continuing to pump the bellows. When the fuel begins to burn and smoke, pack the smoker with more fuel and close it. Pump the bellows regularly to keep the smoker going.
Some experienced beekeepers say they can judge the mood of their bees and don’t always need to use a smoker. Personally, I don’t fancy approaching hives without one! My advice would be to get a good bee smoker and become familiar with how to use it because if you don’t feel comfortable working near your bees you’ll be less and less likely to want to visit them. Your beekeeping days will be over!
Above all, you don’t want your smoker to go out in the middle of an inspection! You need to know how to light it properly, what fuel to use, and how to keep it lit. You need to know what to do with your smoker once you reach the hive, and what to do when you’ve finished your inspections.
If you’re struggling to use your bee smoker, follow the steps below until you’re confident you can light it and that it won’t go out for at least 10 minutes without puffing the bellows. I recommend you practice this a few times before any actual hive inspections to avoid unpleasant surprises!
How does a Bee Smoker Work?
A long time ago somebody figured out that if you blow smoke onto bees before manipulating their hive, they’ll be much less likely to sting. This practice was commonly used over many generations, but the actual scientific reason why it works wasn’t known until fairly recently.
Why smoke bees?
Honey bees are genetically inclined to react to smoke. Normally when a beehive is threatened guard bees release a strong pheromone (it’s called isopentyl acetate or alarm pheromone - that’s one to tell your buddies at the beekeeping association). This pheromone warns other bees in the colony about the imminent danger and causes them to react defensively. The older bees who have more venom, are alerted to defend the hive.
Pheromones of different types are used as a means of communication within a colony. I’ve heard it said that alarm pheromone resembles the chemical smell of bananas! So it seems to be common practice among beekeepers to avoid eating bananas before visiting their hives!
When you puff smoke onto your hives this effectively masks the bees communication pheromones, including the alarm pheromone. As you can imagine, this causes quite a bit of disruption inside the hive. As a result, some of the bees run to the honey stores and start gorging themselves on supplies, in case they need to abandon the nest, taking their precious stores with them. By instinct, they’re under the impression that the hive might burn down.
And heavy bees gorged with honey tend to be less irritable, just like us after a good meal!
All this gives beekeepers the possibility to open up hives, have a rummage inside, then close the hive and beat a retreat with less likelihood of making a large number of bees angry.
How do Beehive Smokers Work?
To work well a smoker needs to be filled with burning fuel which produces plenty of smoke. The bellows attached to the fire chamber help produce a supply of air to start and then keep the fire ignited. A puff on the bellows also pushes smoke out of the narrow nozzle at the top which can be directed towards the hive during inspections. It’s a simple device but very efficient!
The Different Parts of a Bee Smoker
The original design for today's modern smoker with bellows was invented by the American beekeeper Moses Quinby in around 1875, and the design hasn’t changed much since. A bee smoker is basically a metal can with a nozzle on top for directing the smoke and a set of bellows to help oxygenate the fire.
The fire chamber (sometimes called a firebox) is the main part of the smoker. I recommend you get one with a big chamber since the small ones don’t hold enough fuel. This is one of the characteristics that will help prevent the smoker from going out during inspections. You can find them made from different kinds of metal such as galvanised steel or even copper, but the stainless steel models usually last a little longer.
The nozzle on top is hinged so that you can open the chamber to fill it with fuel. The narrow form of the nozzle helps direct smoke into the hive.
The bellows need to be made from a strong and sturdy material since this is the main moving part of the smoker and it’s likely to wear out over time.
When choosing a bee smoker, try to find one with a protective cage around it (known as a heat shield) so that in case you pick it up without gloves you wont get burnt.
Normally the wire shield also forms a hook at the top which is useful for hanging it on the side of the hive during inspections.
Most smokers also have an internal aeration grate which helps prevent ash falling to the bottom and blocking the flow of smoke, and generally promotes good air flow.
You can find perfectly good inexpensive smokers, so you don’t need to invest a huge amount of money. A large stainless steel smoker with sturdy bellows and a protective heat shield is the better choice - this one on Amazon is a good example. It will probably become your best buddy during inspections!
Bee Smoker Fuel Types
Before you start you need a good supply of fuel...
Tip: Whatever you do, make sure you avoid chemical fire starters or other chemically treated materials in your smoker. Honey bees are very sensitive to chemicals and you could end up harming or even killing some of your bees!
There are plenty of natural and easily available fuel types for use in a beehive smoker. General practice is to use three different types of fuel: a fire starter or tinder, some kindling and some kind of main fuel.
The starter will light quickly and easily but doesn’t have a long burn time. Some crumpled newspaper or corrugated cardboard generally works well. The idea is to have a material which is not too compact and has a large surface area which is easily oxygenated (The more oxygen can reach the surface of the material the faster the combustion). Crumpled newspaper can be easily lit then dropped into the fire chamber.
Kindling will burn easily and has a medium burning time. Pine needles work well and some people even use these as the principal fuel source. Sawdust is another good choice. The kindling helps sustain the fire longer.
Some beekeepers then add a long-burning fuel to maintain the fire as long as possible. Untreated wood chips are a good example of a durable fuel for this purpose.
These are just a few examples, and if you ask ten beekeepers what the best fuel is, you’ll probably get ten different answers! The key is to use what’s easily found and works for you.
A lot of these fuels can be found for free in nature and you should make sure you have a good supply. However there will be times when you run out or your natural source of fuel is too damp to use. As a contingency you should also buy some commercial fuel made of compressed sawdust or cotton and stock these in your garage or somewhere dry.
How to Light a Bee Smoker
Whatever fuel you use the secret is to add layers of kindling and fuel a little at a time. Your objective is to light a fire which will continue to smoke for 10 minutes or longer without having to operate the bellows. You also want to practice producing cool smoke from the nozzle. Your bees won’t appreciate being zapped with hot smoke! You’ll singe their wings...
Other things you might need: Get yourself one of those long reach lighters so if necessary you can light a fire at the bottom of the fire chamber. Also keep a metal hive tool handy so you can push fuel down inside the fire chamber.
- 1Gather all your tools, fuel and kindling so you can light your smoker before approaching your hives. Make sure you put the aeration grate in place at the bottom of the fire chamber.
- 2Light your starter fuel such as a loosely crumpled ball of newspaper and let it catch fire before dropping it into the fire chamber. Push the burning paper to the bottom with a hive tool, but don’t compress it. You want lots of air around the tinder. Operate the bellows a couple of the times so that the paper flares up.
- 3Now add kindling such as pine needles on top of the flaming tinder. Lightly push the kindling to the bottom while puffing the bellows. As the kindling catches fire you can add another loose bunch of kindling. Be careful not to compress your fuel too much or the fire will go out. You want to leave room for air to circulate so that oxygen can reach all the surfaces of the fuel. Keep puffing the bellows from time to time.
- 4Continue to add kindling repeatedly and pushing it down lightly until the fire smokes and burns without the need to operate the bellows. Now that the fire is burning well you can press down to compact the fuel. The smoker should be about half full of fuel.
- 5At this point you can add more long-burning fuel such as wood chips. Continue to operate the bellows from time to time so that oxygen circulates up through the fuel.
- 6When the solid fuel is ignited you can close the smoker. Leave it for a minute to be sure that it continues to burn.
The idea is to get a very hot layer of burning embers at the bottom of the smoker which in turn will burn the fuel above it. Heat rises, so the fuel at the top needs heat from below. This is why you add fuel step by step so you get a good foundation to your fire at the base. When lit properly you can leave a smoker alone for up to half an hour without it going out.
Be sure to check the temperature of the smoke. It should be comfortable on your skin. If at any point the smoke seems to hot, add more fuel or stuff some leaves on top to keep the smoke cool.
During use be sure to puff the bellows from time to time and periodically check the level of the fuel. Keep some more fuel handy in case you need to top it up.
And remember to be careful - it’s hot!
How to use a Bee Smoker
With your lit smoker in hand you can now approach your honey bees. Begin by directing a few puffs of smoke at the hive entrance. There is a natural airflow from bottom to top of the hive so the smoke will pass through the colony. Wait a minute or two so that the bees get the message.
Now you can direct some smoke under the outer cover by lifting it slightly. Slowly remove the outer and inner cover while sending a few puffs of smoke across the honey frames. You will see bees disappear between the frames, leaving you to get on with your work.
Be careful where you place the smoker during inspections, especially if your hives are in a location where fire hazard is high. The hook on your smoker makes it easy to hang on a hive box.
If you get a lot of bees bumping into you just puff some smoke around your bee suit to ward them off.
Try to use smoke sparingly. Too much smoke can actually cause soot particles to stick to the surface of fresh honeycomb and if you’re producing comb honey (honey which includes some wax honeycomb) this can leave a smokey flavor.
If you see sparks coming out of the spout it may be a sign that the fuel is running low. Open the lid and add some more fuel (which of course you kept handily nearby).
Finally, if a bee stings you, or on your bee suit during inspection, use your smoker to puff some smoke on the area after you’ve removed the stinger. When a bee stings it releases the same pheromone which provokes defensive behavior and will attract other angry bees. The smoke will help mask the alarm pheromone.
Put out the Smoker
When you're finished smoking your hives the bee smoker needs to be put out and stored. A hot or burning smoker remains a danger so you should get into the habit of putting it out and letting it cool properly.
To do this you can try lying the smoker on it's side (on a non-flammable surface of course). The lack of vertical air flowing through the fire chamber should put it out.
But don't just leave it at that. Empty the ashes from fire chamber on to an area that is non-flammable. Some beekeepers use a metal trash can to empty their smokers. Just dump the contents inside and close the lid - the lack of oxygen should put out any remaining embers (check to make sure).
Store your cooled smoker in a dry place (you don't want it damp the next time you come to use it).
How to Clean a Bee Smoker
Over time ash can accumulate inside the smoker around the air intake at the bottom. Also check the inside of the nozzle to keep it clean. Pine is resinous so needles and wood shavings can leave oily deposits and soot inside the fire chamber. Use a scraping tool such as your hive tool or a flat headed screwdriver or even a wire brush. Clean the interior making sure that airways are not blocked.
From time to time you can give your smoker a complete clean by soaking it in white vinegar. Just make sure your don’t dampen the bellows since vinegar could damage the material.
The general rule with using smoke? Less is better than more...