Once you decide to light your smoker, how do you keep it lit? Many beekeepers report that before they’ve finished just one hive, their smoker is cold as night and they have to begin again.
In truth, everything you need to know about smokers you learned in elementary school. I’m thinking of those “fire triangles” that always appear in science textbooks. The triangle usually has a graphic of red and orange flames in the center, and each of the three points is labeled. Oxygen. Fuel. Heat.
Don’t forget the basics
If your smoker is going out, you are likely neglecting one of the three points. You may have put all three elements in the smoker, but unless they are pampered, the fire is apt to go out.
For example, when you build a campfire you generally begin by lighting some quick-burning fuel like newspaper, paraffin fire starters, or finely split tinder. Plenty of oxygen surrounds your pile, so you just add heat in the form of a match or torch, and the fire starts. After the starter material gets hot and burns on its own, you add larger pieces of wood, often called kindling. When the kindling gets going, you can finally add logs. Now all you need is marshmallows.
You know that hot air rises and you can see the burning gases (flames) as they rise from the fire. You can get quite close to the fire on the perimeter, but the space above the fire is extremely hot. Even your marshmallows will burn if held directly over the flames.
Don’t light the top
I have a neighbor, a regular he-man, who can’t build a fire to save his life. I’ve seen him try to light big slash piles of logging debris by dousing diesel fuel over the top. He lights it, flames shoot skyward among billows of black smoke, but within 20 minutes the diesel fuel is gone and his slash pile remains undamaged.
In the same way, some beekeepers stuff their smokers with fuel and then light the top. It may flair up for a few minutes, but then it goes out. When you light the top, the hot gases move up and out of the smoker, but they don’t ignite the fuel down below, so it goes out. You need to light the fuel at the bottom first, so the hot gases move up through the fresh fuel and make it burn.
Going back to our example, if you build a campfire in the style of a tepee or log cabin, you can still light it from the bottom and be successful. But the way a smoker is designed, it is difficult to fill the canister and then light it from the bottom. So you have to do it in increments.
Steps to lighting a smoker
The following steps take longer than lighting the fuel at the top, but the extra time is worth it. Properly lit, the fire will smolder for long periods without going out.
- Begin with some quick-starting fuel like crumpled newspaper or pine needles. This fuel should not be packed tightly but should be light and fluffy with lots of air space. Ignite the fuel, wait until it burns on its own, and then push it down to the bottom of the smoker with your hive tool. Squeeze the bellows a few times to force air up through the lightly-packed fuel.
- After the initial fuel is burning well, add another handful of fluffy fuel to the smoker. Once it begins to burn, push it down with the hive tool and squeeze the bellows a few more times.
- Repeat the previous step one or two more times, always waiting for the fresh fuel to begin burning before pushing it down into the smoker, and always adding a few puffs of air.
- Once the fire is burning lustily and flames are licking the insides of the fuel chamber, you can add larger fuel and more oxygen.
- After the larger fuel has ignited, you should be able to close the lid. At this point, the fire should smolder on its own with only an occasional squeeze on the bellows. Remember to check the fuel supply from time to time, and always add a few puffs of air along with the fresh fuel.
Once it’s hot, it’s hot
Once you have your smoker burning well, remember it will burn for a long time and it will be hot. It is easy to forget about the hot smoker once you have finished working your bees.
It’s embarrassing to report that one day earlier this year after I finished hive inspections, I shed my bee suit and left my smoker on a wooden table in the backyard. Later, while talking to my husband in the front yard, I said, “I smell smoke.” It didn’t smell like the wood chips I had been using, and it wasn’t. When I went to investigate, smoke was rising from a charred circle under the smoker.
Moron. I could have burned the house down.
Honey Bee Suite
Thanks for this Rusty. I did a lot of camping with my father so learned early how to build a fire – certainly came in handy with the smoker. My two cents – if I feel the smoke is too hot I add a handful of green grass above the flames to cool it down.
You are right about the grass; it works well.
Thanks for the delightful article and great tips. I hate it when my smoker goes out early, and mostly it’s just cuz I have been lazy.
Thanks Rusty. Do you have any tips for cleaning the smoker? That seems like a good winter chore because the sides of mine are getting a thick layer of soot. I’m sure it will be a messy job.
Like someone else mentioned in this thread, I often burn it clean with a propane torch.
I use wood pellets for a corn stove that are heated by my torch used for soldering copper pipe. I have pine needles but I don’t like the tarry mess from pine needles. The pellets are just pulverized wood chunks glued together with no harmful additives according to the bag. Sometimes the pellets just don’t stay lit even though they are glowing red. When the inside smoker is filled about 3/4 it stays lit better. But if I am doing a quick inspection, I seldom use a smoker or even sugar water. But its got to be in and out just a few seconds and no more.
I agree. If I can be in and out quickly, I don’t use the smoker.
I was using my smoker last Sunday, got done, set my smoker on top of 1 of my plastic tubs where I store all kinds of bee equipment. Guess what?? burned a nice hole in the lid, its great getting old!!!
Older people blame their age, younger people blame someone else, but mistakes happen to everyone!
I was in Australia last November and went to a beekeepers meeting in Melbourne. They told me that the forestry officials are always worried that a smoker may ignite a forest fire. Australia is so dry that once a fire gets going it is difficult to extinguish. Our last week a fire broke out in the bush in the south and 120 houses burned to the ground before it was controlled. Similar to fires that break out in California.
So it is very important there to have fuel that does not throw sparks and a bottom that does get hot so when you put it down it won’t ignite the grass. I don’t know if they have smokers designed for this but it got me thinking.
I agree. Last year when we had a particularly dry summer, I was paranoid about the smoker. I wouldn’t touch it. I live next to a state forest, and burning it down is something I’d rather avoid.
Lighting the smoker from the base of the material instead of the top certainly works and to this end we recommend that a 10 mm hole is drilled in the side of the smoker just above the internal fire grate. Fashion a small movable door over the hole and fix with a self tapping screw. Fill the smoker with your favourite smoker fuel and place a small amount of green grass on the top of the fuel. Purchase a small blow torch from a hardware shop and you are now ready to go. To light the smoker, offer up lightered blow torch to the hole and work the bellows. It will soon be alight and will give you lots of cool smoke. If it does go out, just a quick burst of the blow torch through the hole will get it going again, all without opening the smoker. It really does work!
That is a really slick idea. Do you have a photo of your movable door?
This is something I struggle with, so thanks for the tips.
Hi Rusty, love your blogs and have learned lots from you. Thanks. Re smoker safety, I always put my smoker in an empty galvanised bucket – hooked to the rim. No risk of igniting tables or grass or bumping it with my leg. When finished inspections, back it goes in the bucket with a wine cork pushed in the spout to kill the combustion.
I use a wine cork. Should have used a metal bucket. Thanks!
You might want to consider getting a paver block and putting it on your deck or wherever you’ll be sitting your smoker.
You can get some that are afoot square for just $1 or $2 at Wal-Mart or the home stores.
No matter how careful you are, you can never be 100% sure the thing is out. The paver block will insure that it can’t do any harm, no matter what.
Thanks Craig. Good idea.
With only a couple of hives, I have found that commercial fiber fuel and a propane torch works best. The low cost of the fuel is minimal as compared to other expenses incurred in keeping honeybees. Of course, this comes from a man who has gas logs in his fireplace at home.
I too use a propane torch. So quick.
I have a honey bucket with an airtight lid. When I have finished with the smoker I pop it in there and seal the lid. The fire dies very quickly and the unburnt woodchips can be used, charcoal-like, next time. My smoker has a wire frame around it so the sides of the bucket are safe. As the first stage of starting the next burn I throw the ashes and unburnt fuel into the bucket so this layer protects the bottom of the bucket from the heat of the smoker. Added benefit of this system is that it keeps smells in my estate car to a minimum.
Glad you mention campfires, Rusty, My experience has been that the smoker stays lit just fine when I’ve finished inspecting. Just like the campfire when you run out of marshmallows.
PS: 5 or 6 dry inch-diameter twigs, clump of burlap, handful of dry grass or pine needles, 2″ hunk of old brood comb.
I think that just adds character to an otherwise boring old picnic table. A conversation starter possibly from guests, and a gentle reminder in your old age of the good days past………….
I love your positive attitude.
Ah, the smoker, the bane of my existence. I use what I have around – fine pine shavings (which make a mess inside the cone, I have to torch it out now and then) and some wood pellets meant for the barbecue. Packing paper from Mann Lake shipments to start it all. I do all the right things, so I think. Most often the darn thing goes out, usually after I have been engrossed in an inspection, but sometimes ….what the heck?!!! The smoker I used yesterday IS STILL LIT when I go to do hive work the following day! I’m still hoping to figure out where I went right.
That’s funny. All night is a long time.
Re a smoker burning all night. After use, if you plug the smoker with a cork it will not have air (oxygen) and go out quickly.
I use wood chips to get a good fire going then slowly sprinkle sawdust or wood shavings from our carpentry shop. Once it gets smouldering it will go for hours.
A couple of thoughts (and thanks for the great instructions, Rusty…this could have been a Master Beekeeper research project!!!)>
1. I beekeep in a community garden setting and we have had three dry summers in a row here. When I teach an apprentice level course, the apprentices all have charge of one hive for the duration of the course…which means they can beekeep there alone after a first co-beekeep with me. We are paranoid about fire too, so have cinder blocks (so well named…) beside EACH hive, as a smoker rest. We have an 18″x 18″ patio slab to lay the smokers on once we are done with them, and corks there to stuff the “noses”. In addition we have coffee sacks, a sack of sand, and a 25 gallon container of water in plain sight in case of a fire.
2. I make my own, rockin’ smoker fuel out of purchased burlap, white wood chips (animal bedding, sold in bales) and dried catmint. I wash and dry the burlap, cut it into 10″ squares, roughly. I put into the square a big handful of wood chips mixed with the dried catmint (catmint smoke is supposed to be extra calming, and smells nicer to the beekeeper…tried tobacco but it is costly and smells awful), fold the burlap over the chips into a nice bundle, tie up with natural fibre garden twine. Makes great, long lasting smoker fuel. The animal bedding as starter is optional…the packets start pretty well on their own.
3. I got a good quality créme brulée torch and put it onto a can of butane (available in most hardware stores)…best smoker lighter EVER!!!
So Janet, it sounds like those could be made up in advance during the long wet winter and then retrieved when needed. I like the idea. I’ve been using organic alfalfa pellets which also burn well and smell nice. They remind me of the scent of those alfalfa leafcutter domiciles in eastern Washington that smell heavenly. I think, though, I learned about burning alfalfa pellets from one of the Canadian bee books.
And about the créme brulée torch: it has advantages in the kitchen, no? Like créme brulée?
I love this post. I’ve seen people work with smokers and make it look so easy…now I know why. They have the campfire know how. I haven’t taken my smoker out for a spin, yet. The hive in my yard is part of scientific research for Swarthmore University, Havertown and Johns Hopkins so I don’t work with it — I watch. May ask for a bit of a go this weekend.
Great tips! A smoker may yet be in my future!!
The pellets used in pellet stoves are a great fuel for a smoker. Add a couple of handfuls of pellets after the initial fuel, paper and kindling, are burning. There will be plenty of smoke and the smoker will stay lit for a long time.
Thanks. I have some here but I never think to use them. I will make a point of it.
Can you tell me a good way to clean caked tar from the inside of a smoker?
Use a propane torch. It works especially well in the cone part where the tar is really thick. Heat it up with the torch until it burns by itself. Let it keep burning until it goes out. I usually try to light it again, and if it won’t light, I wait until it is cool. When it’s cool the remaining tar flakes off in sheets. I can actually see my reflection inside the cone when I’m done.
Thank you very much, Rusty!
I keep my smoker in a small galvanized metal bucket. I can hang the smoker on the edge of the bucket and the smoker base is a couple inches off the bottom inside the bucket. Keeps me from burning myself or anything I set the smoker on.
I notice no-one mentions using these smoke sprayers that use liquid concentrate
They look like they would reduce fire hazards and keep-alight problems to zero.
I am not yet a beekeeper but would be interested to know why they don’t seem very popular?
Great Site, Great Info…
Some beekeepers use liquid smoke. My reasons for not using it has to do with wetting the bees, which I don’t want to do in cold weather. Also, you can slightly open the lid of a three-deep hive, add a puff of smoke, and it will distribute easily throughout the hive in moments. I don’t see that happening with liquid. But I have no experience, so maybe I am wrong.
Has anyone here ever tried it?
My husband and I use oat straw in the bottom of our smoker then pine horse bedding chips for the long burn. By holding our propane torch directly to the side of the smoker (very close to the bottom) the straw lights up quickly. Just make sure you hold the torch to the side for a good 20 seconds. You light the smoker without having a door or having to push the fuel down through the top. It works like a charm. A side note… don’t be alarmed that the metal gets red hot.