Smoke and bees: the effect of wildfires
To my readers in Australia and New Zealand: I send my heartfelt and sincere thanks to firefighters from your two nations who have come to join the thousands of North American firefighters in their quest to extinguish the wildfires raging across the western United States. Thank you a million times over. My prayers are with the fireman and their families everywhere, but a special nod goes to those who have come from half a world away.
Saturday morning I was perplexed. At 9 am my bees were not out enjoying the warm sun, but remained hive bound. One bee—perhaps two—per minute appeared on the landing board. I went around to several hives and witnessed the same behavior. Immediately, I feared a catastrophe. A pesticide kill? Some new disease? I knocked gently on each hive, fearing the worst. But each knock sounded solid and dense—no sign of hollow hives—and each knock was answered with an insistent roar.
Since I had been planning to open one of the hillside hives and replace the bottom board, I decided to start there and see if that hive was equally weird. It was.
It is a small hive, but I had to take off a honey super and an excluder to get down to the brood box. Then I would have to move the brood box and slatted rack before I could replace the bottom board. During the procedure, the bees remained totally docile and none flew out or threatened while I was dismantling their home.
In the space below the excluder, a warren of burr comb split open. About an inch of bees immediately converged on the broken cells, lapping up the honey. I needed to scrape away the burr comb but there were just too many bees. Although I seldom use a smoker, it seemed like there was no alternative.
I covered the two halves and went down the hill to fetch the smoker. On my return, I noticed even more bees crawling up between the frames and accumulating atop the burr comb.
Once the smoker was burning well, I gave the bees a few good puffs. Nothing. Not one bee crawled down between the frames. I added an empty super and a lid to contain the smoke, and puffed under the lid. After a couple minutes, I opened it up. They were all still there. Dumbfounded, I tried again.
Ultimately, I ended up brushing bees and scraping away some of the burr comb, and then setting the super down on top of it, hoping not to kill too many. All this commotion and the bees remained as passive as day-old bread.
I guess I was too worried about my bees to notice the atmosphere, but when I returned to the house, my husband said, “Something is strange. Everything looks red.”
And then I did notice it. Whatever the sunlight touched took on a reddish-orange tint. Anything brown—like the crispy lawn and the sun-scorched trees—bore a chestnut glow. The look was familiar but it took me a while to remember. “It’s smoke,” I said finally. “Smoke from the wildfires.”
And it was. The winds had brought smoke from the many fires in eastern and central Washington, about 300 miles away. At first, we noticed only the odd light. Later, we could smell it as well. By evening, the sun itself took on a red and eerie cast.
I began to wonder if the atmospheric smoke kept my bees home and docile. Is that why they weren’t out foraging? Is that why they remained inured to the home invasion? Is that why the addition of more smoke made no difference to their behavior?
Truth is, I don’t know the answer, but it certainly seems related. I’ve never seen bees so indifferent to the addition of smoke. Maybe, after hours of breathing it and hours of living in it, the addition of more smoke made no impression on them. Maybe they had reached a sensory limit.
Today is a bit better. A few more bees are out, the light is more normal, but the smoky odor persists. What do you think? Is atmospheric smoke affecting the bees, or is it something I’ve overlooked?