smoke for bees

How to smoke bees: 10 tips for best results

Learning how to smoke bees is a necessary beekeeping skill.

Learning to use a smoker with ease will simplify beekeeping from day one. For best results, practice lighting your smoker before your bees arrive.

Learning to use a smoker effectively is one of the basic skills a new beekeeper needs to learn. The following frequently asked questions will help get you started.

What does a smoker do?

A smoker is a delivery tool. It is a simple device that burns fuel, makes smoke, and allows you to put the smoke where you want it.

The modern smoker hasn’t changed much since its invention in 1873. It has three main parts: a fire chamber (a place to build the fire), a bellows (a way to pump oxygen onto the fire), and a nozzle (to direct the smoke).

Will smoking harm my bees?

It depends. Smoking should be done judiciously with smoke from a smoldering fire with no open flames. The smoke must not be too hot or it will singe the bees, especially their delicate wings. To protect your bees, you should use only cool smoke.

Cool smoke? I thought smoke was hot

Cool smoke, sometimes called quality smoke, is smoke from a smoldering fire. This smoke is usually white or light gray and thick. The best smoke for bees should be cool enough that you can direct it onto your bare wrist without discomfort. It will feel warm, but not burning hot.

How does smoke calm my bees?

We think that smoke masks pheromones (odors) secreted by bees. For example, if a guard bee detects an intruder, she may emit alarm pheromones that send a danger signal to the other bees, making them defensive. The smoke may effectively block the scent, keeping all the bees calm and easy to handle.

Another theory is that the smell of smoke simulates a fire. The fear of fire causes the bees to eat large amounts of honey in case they need to flee the hive and build a new home elsewhere. When bees are very full of honey and preparing to leave home, they are less likely to sting.

Can I use too much smoke?

Yes, colonies that are smoked too much may be driven right out of the hive. Also, after a certain period of time, bees may overcome their fear and become agitated by the situation.

You should take your well-lit smoker, lift the hive cover, and puff a few times before lowering the cover back into place. Then wait. You need to give the bees time to react, communicate with one another, and eat some honey. It doesn’t happen instantly so there’s no benefit in rushing. 

What fuels can I use in my smoker?

An endless array of fuels can be used safely in your smoker. Non-treated burlap or baling twine, cotton fibers, wood pellets, dry twigs, wood chips, punky wood, peat moss, dry leaves, and pine needles will work, but some are better than others.

Other smoldery materials include pine cones, wine corks (not plastic), chopsticks, popsicle sticks, peat pots, corn cobs, peanut shells, dried pony poop, and dry puffball mushrooms. Just be wary of anything that may contain hidden chemicals.

Cotton is one of the best products if you can find it unbleached and undyed. Dry leaves work well but they burn fast and disappear quickly. They can also cause sparks.

Pine needles are readily available and burn well, but they contain resins. Resins tend to burn hot and leave residues in your smoker. These can build up over time and impede the airflow, so the residue must occasionally be removed from inside the smoker.

If resin buildup is a problem, you can sometimes light it with a propane torch and let it burn away.

What fuels should I avoid?

Just remember that both you and your bees are going to breathe whatever you’re burning in there. Avoid fuels that contain bleach, dyes, glues (including plywood, chipboard, and some corrugated cardboard), pesticides, plastic, and dryer lint.

Although both burlap and baling twine have been popular with beekeepers for decades, modern versions are often treated with fungicides. Usually, twine with fungicide is dyed green, but sometimes it’s not, so be cautious.

Dryer lint is usually loaded with plastics from polyester clothing, or even nylon and rayon. Rayon is made from cellulose, but it’s processed with a host of chemicals.

How can I light my smoker and keep it lit?

Lighting your smoker correctly is vital to keeping it lit. Basically, you want to build a hot, fast fire and then smother it with slower-burning materials. By smothering the fire and reducing the oxygen, you make the smoke cool enough for bees.

Below are 5 key steps to building a good fire in your smoker:

  1. Begin by putting some quick-burning fuel like crumpled newspaper or pine needles in the bottom of your smoker. The pile should be light and fluffy with lots of air between the pieces.

  2. Ignite the fuel with a match or torch. Once it starts to burn, compact it with your hive tool and add more quick-burning materials on top. Repeatedly squeeze the bellows to force more air through the pile.

  3. After it burns down, add more quick-burning fuel and more oxygen. Repeat this procedure several times, always waiting for the fresh fuel to begin burning before you push it down with the hive tool.

  4. Once the fire is burning well and flames are licking the inside of the fire chamber, you can add your desired cool-burning fuel and some more oxygen.

  5. Once the cool-burning fuel starts to smolder, you can close the lid. Remember to check the fuel supply from time to time, and always add a few puffs of air along with the fresh fuel.

People who have trouble keeping the smoker lit often skip the first steps. The initial fire is everything. If you simply fill your smoker to capacity and light the top, it will go out in no time.

How can I extinguish my smoker?

To extinguish your smoker, keep additional air from going in. Many beekeepers stuff the spout with a wad of green grass or a cork. Do not put a still-burning smoker in your vehicle.

If you decide to dump the smoldering embers, be careful to bury them or put them where they will not start a larger fire.

Are there times I shouldn’t smoke bees?

People who specialize in comb honey often do not use smoke in their hives when honey supers are in place. That’s because the customer eats the comb as well as the honey, and combs that were heavily smoked often retain an annoying smoky flavor. Also, since bees often rip open capped cells when they are smoked, the appearance of comb honey can be severely degraded.

Other times to avoid using smoke include severe droughts when brush and forest fires are commonplace. It is too easy to accidentally ignite grass or other dry materials under or near the hives.

In addition, some people are allergic to smoke. Beekeepers with a smoke allergy can use a light spray of sugar water on their bees in place of smoke. It may not work quite as well, but it’s better than nothing.

So what do you smoke?

Winter is a good time to fill a bucket with things that would make a nice cool smoke for your bees. Toss in things that seem appropriate as you find them. Then, come spring, they should be nice and dry and ready to use.

Every time I write about smokers and fuel, someone surprises me with a new technique or a different kind of fuel. So what do you smoke? Let us know.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

21 Comments

  • I like to use denim from an old pair of jeans I cut up. That combined with cedar bark works very well and burns for a long time.

  • Thanks for this. It’s always great to read your posts. The basics get lost or set aside as we advance our skills. Your site is a treasure that brings us back and informs many of the art.

  • Tried and tested. Education, expertise and experience over many years with a variety of breeds have never needed the assistance of smoke.
    The bee space within the hive is more important as when it is respected it will negate the need for physical pressure and disruption of the colony, hence no need for smoke thus keeping your honey free of odour and smoker ash.

    • Hey Vic,

      It’s good to hear from you again. I’m glad to hear you don’t require smoke to work your bees. I seldom use smoke either and prefer to work without it. Usually.

      However, this post wasn’t aimed at you or me or those with lots of “expertise and experience.” It is aimed at those beginners who might not feel comfortable using a smoker and yet are not ready to work without one.

      I think it is best for new beekeepers (not to mention their bees) to have as many options as possible as they take the leap into this difficult yet rewarding hobby. Legions of experienced beekeepers with truckloads of expertise continue to use smokers their entire careers and there is nothing wrong with that either.

      I find it’s always healthy for us to show patience and compassion for those who choose a different path from our own, and that includes beekeepers.

  • I like to put a piece of lump charcoal at the bottom then use my propane torch to heat it up. About a minute. This becomes the source of heat. Then I stuff leaves and dried grass in there to make the smoke.

  • Thanks for another great article Rusty. I started mixing in dried herbs like lavender and mint with my regular fuel (wood chips and shavings). It produces a unique-smelling smoke, but whether it’s any better or not, I can’t say. The bees definitely like this new calming scent on my hands, judging by their curiosity.

  • Rusty and friends,

    There is a product called liquid smoke available at bee supply houses that works quite well. It’s diluted to a very weak solution and sprayed (misted) with a trigger pump spray bottle. Follow the instructions on the package. I’ve been using liquid smoke for several years except in the late fall while doing mite control. Operation and application is just like a fire smoker. A gentle mist and close the cover and wait.

    Jon
    Coastal Oregon

  • I like to be get the smoker started with pine needles. Then I pack burlap on top. I get a long burn time out of the burlap. I also like what I think is the 10 inch smoker, because I get cooler smoke out of it.

  • I start with newspaper or the brown or white paper that some people send me as shipping filler. Then I add wood shavings from the portable mill that my partner ran. When that’s all going good, I pack it with pine needles.

    My advice to newbies is get the ten-inch tall smoker not the seven-inch one, and find a lot of cheap fuel that you aren’t going to be miserly with. Because it’s much easier to start a large fire than to start a tiny one. I began beekeeping with a small smoker, and a small bag of fuel and I had a terrible time getting and keeping my smoker lit. Now I’m thinking I have garbage cans full of wood shavings and pine needles, and I’ll probably give up beekeeping for the lifting problem before I run out of fuel, so I throw that around generously and have far less trouble lighting the smoker.

    Also, the big smoker and the big fire don’t mean more smoke to the bees. After the initial puff to the hive, just having the smoker at your feet, or hanging on the open box you’re looking in, may be all you need. You should probably be smoking yourself more than the bees. (Smoking smoke may be carcinogenic, isn’t everything?)
    Before you first start your new smoker, find a big bolt with a large head that will just fit in your smoker snout, and you can stick that in when you’re ready to put the thing out. I have a convenient rock that will hold the smoker tipped backward a bit so the snout is pointing upward and the bolt stays in.

    Also also, I totally don’t believe smoking calms the bees. I believe it just confuses them, much to our benefit.

  • Bill Stagg, an excellent BC beekeeper and teacher, taught some things about smokers to me and the one that stuck was this. “Fire needs 3 things: fuel, oxygen and heat.” He stressed that you need to get the fire burning well and it must heat the smoker before you add the “cool fuel” as you mentioned. Thinking about getting the smoker hot taught me some patience. I was always in a rush to get to the bees that I didn’t give the first fire enough time to get going and it constantly went out.

    We have found egg cartons work really well as a cool fuel. We buy eggs in a recycled, untreated cartons and they seem to be excellent as they never really burn, only smolder.

    Finally, we always dump the used (and still often smoldering) smoker contents into a metal bucket of water and swirl it around before we dump the contents in our city compost bin. Your comment about starting forest fires is spot on and we are really careful here, especially in the dry season when the prairie can easily catch fire.

  • I’ve kept bees for upward 50 years now and have used smoke for the better part of those. Nowadays most of the folks in my area in southern Sweden are keeping gentle bees and I now find it sufficient to use a spray bottle with plain water to get the bees to behave. The dominant breed is Buckfast which helps. As with all bee breeds they have their downsides but who cares if you can handle them in your underwear.

  • I use fir flowers, strobili. At least I think that’s what they are. In summer it rains smoker fuel from the trees all around my house. I wait till they’re dry and put them into a large tin. They do contain some resin but they seem to burn slowly and last a long time. I always light a smoker but don’t often use it unless I have an unusually unruly colony.

  • Regular reader here from Northern VA.

    When I remove the moisture quilts from my hives in the spring, I dump the shavings into a 5-gallon bucket. I burn these in my smoker and add fresh shavings to the moisture quilts in the fall.

    • Victor,

      That is so very funny. I do exactly the same thing, even putting the shavings in a 5-gallon bucket. Great minds think alike!

  • I have two methods for smoking bees: 1) Pack them into a pipe or, 2) Roll them in cigarette papers. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  • I’ve heard people pour scorn on the theory that the smell of smoke simulates a fire causing the bees to gorge on honey in preparation for flight. I didn’t know if the theory had been rebutted convincingly so I asked on Beekeeping Forum (UK) and received some interesting responses, particularly this one (I asked the writer’s permission to post the link here): https://beekeepingforum.co.uk/threads/beekeeping-myths.44342/post-849211.

    The one piece of advice about smoking that I value most is from Donald Sims, in his book Sixty Years with bees: ‘Smoke ACROSS the tops of the frames.’ That is so different from the approach I’ve sometimes seen, DRIVING the bees down, pumping furiously on the bellows.

    Now I never direct smoke down into the frames. It’s the bees that are flying, or about to fly, that you need to be concerned about. No point in disturbing those quietly going about their business on the frames. I do find, if I’m surrounded by lots of bees, that putting some smoke in the air does reduce frenetic activity. Does this calm them? maybe. Or maybe they don’t like smoke and just head off for a while. It definitely helps me in situations like this (enveloping myself in smoke) to use a pleasant-smelling fuel like softwood chips – sold as ‘animal bedding’). I’ve found when working with others that some fuels are pretty noxious – egg-boxes being the worst. But no doubt these were not the recycled, untreated cartons that Andrew mentions above!

  • Hello Archie.
    “No point in disturbing the bees going about business” a point well made for not using smoke. Any intrusion into the hive if done with respect and experience negates the need for smoking. If you are relying on a smoker to work with your bees then we strongly suggest taking a hard long look at your manipulation techniques.

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