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.
Table of contents
- What does a smoker do?
- Will smoking harm my bees?
- Cool smoke? I thought smoke was hot
- How does smoke calm my bees?
- Can I use too much smoke?
- What fuels can I use in my smoker?
- What fuels should I avoid?
- How can I light my smoker and keep it lit?
- How can I extinguish my smoker?
- Are there times I shouldn’t smoke bees?
- So what do you smoke?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Honey Bee Suite