honey bee behavior

Smoke and bees: the effect of wildfires on bee populations

Smoke and bees don't mix well. Smoke interferes with the bees' navigation and pheromones.

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 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?

Honey Bee Suite


  • Hi Rusty
    I suspect that we have more smoke here in Ellensburg than what you have. We have about one mile of visibility. My bees are out and about and very active. The Autumn Joy has started to bloom and they are luv’n it.

  • Like you guys in the USA, we in Australia know of the fear of bushfires, we certainly have our share, so its only fitting that our two countries unite as the have done for many, many years & I would hope that the great friendship continues.

    Re the smoke & bees, smart little creatures they are.
    Wish we were as smart !!!!

  • My bees are showing the same behavior. The last couple of days it has been so smokey it looks like a heavy fog. There is a really strong smell of smoke as well. Today is not not quite as bad and the bees are out flying. Probably getting water and I see they are on the tar weed that just started blooming. If this smoke keeps up, I wonder if the bees are filling up on honey and will run short later. The yellow jackets (yellowjackets?) didn’t seem to care either way and are out in force.

  • I was equally perplexed with my bees this weekend near Snohomish, about 20 miles NW of Seattle. Then today, 8/23/2015 the smoke was most dense, and my bees were more subdued. However, there were still quite a few out on the full-blooming landscape flowers. I am not sure, either, if the smoke is the primary reason.

  • Hmm??? Well you never know with bees. I live in Central Oregon and the smoke was the heaviest we have had all season here today. However, my girls were as busy as ever. In fact, I have a good nectar flow going right now from rabbitbrush and knapweed so they are building comb like crazy.

  • Wishing our friends in the US all the best and may the fires be contained very soon.

    As we know, bees ability to smell is much more advanced then our nose and as a result they would react to fires/smoke well before we would be aware of the disaster.

    Here in Australia where we also suffer from fires too regularly. Tthe bees changed behaviour has been noticed for a long time.

  • As soon as I saw your post about the entrances to the supers, I tried it on 4 supers that the bees are filling with honey (we get honey all year round in the middle of San Jose, CA). Since then I have spent about 2 hours in the last week watching to see if the bees use the new entrance. In that time I have not seen a single bee go into an upper entrance. There are always about 2 or 3 bees hanging around just inside the hole. Occasionally one will come out onto the landing board and sun herself, then go back in. What is the trick to get them to start using the alternate entrance?

  • This is great information as I noticed the same behavior with my bees today, around 12:00 when I went out to feed them. I live in Oregon and the smoke was particularly dense and everything had a reddish tinge. The smoke was so thick it was obscuring the surrounding mountains of the valley I live in. My bees are normally very visible but today all was quite calm and it seemed everyone was inside. I use an inside top feeder and when each cover was removed I did notice an unusually larger number of bees milling about the feeder jars. I chalked it up to the heavy smoke in the air but it’s nice to see others are noticing it as well.

    I also wish to send heartfelt thanks to all the firefighters from far away who are coming in to help. And my sympathies go out to those families whose loved ones have died or been hurt while fighting the good fight.
    God Bless!

  • I inspected all of my hives yesterday, to see if I lost any queens to MAQS treatment (I didn’t, though I did have one hive that apparently went queenless before the treatment) and to check on winter stores to decide which hives to feed. We had heavy smoke all the way down here in Corvallis. I have a few defensive hives and as I’m afraid to use a smoker with this level of fire danger I was expecting to collect some stings. When I opened them all of the hives were quite docile – I’ll credit the natural smoke…

  • Rusty,this is heartbreaking to read. My prayers to not only the firefighters and anyone whose homes are in peril, but to the beekeepers and their charges.
    It also confirms my thought about smoke: that it not only prompts the bees to gorge in case they have to flee, but that it also has a stupefying effect. And it makes perfect sense that a diminutive creature would notice and react at much lower ppm than a big lumbering human.
    Best wishes to all!

  • My bees here in Southern Oregon are reacting to the smoke like your bees are. We had a light rain for a few hours yesterday morning, and immediately after it cleared up the bees were out in force, making up for lost time. My chickens are also reacting to the smoke. Last week, on a particularly smoky day, they roosted up at noon. Apparently they thought it was sunset.

  • Rusty,
    Just a thought.
    These responses show how useful a general location reference by posters would be. Something generic like Central Oregon, San Jose, etc. Nothing which could identify a person but would give some context. I know I try to find some hint of location so I can think how to apply the hints and suggestions which you and your readers post. This series of posts almost requires such references for context, but others we have to guess.
    Thanks for your site and everything, especially for making us aware that everybody has stories and issues.

    • Marian,

      This is a problem I’ve been trying to solve for six years. When people use the Contact Me form, I specifically ask for location and hardly anyone bothers. As for the WordPress comments form, I have downloaded info on how to alter it, but I’m not a coder and I find it intimidating. I will probably end up crashing the whole site if I try—I’ve done similar things before. Believe me, if it were simple, it would have been done on day 1.

  • RE: Location
    I realized I had left out my location in my reply, but unlike the Google blogs, there was no way edit my post, or to add to it, that I could find.
    I’m near McMinnville, Oregon by the way. Smoke has cleared out today with the west wind.

  • I’m inland a bit of the Washington coast and when I went out to feed and check my bees this morning, the only thing out and about were bald-faced hornets. Now there are a few out but not as many as usual. I haven’t had yellow jackets this year (so far). It is extremely smokey here (over 280ppm). I was also wondering about storage usage but another beekeeper suggested they would gorge at first but not continue to. I guess we will see as this is expected to get worse until Monday.

    • Hi Denise,

      I’ve been swamped with this question today. It seems like a lot of beekeepers are in the smoke zone. You are right, the bees will generally stay home because smoke can interfere with their navigation ability and it signals danger to the colony. Expect them to stay home until it clears. Yes, the bees may gorge on honey at first, but they will soon settle down. It will be like one of the normal short dearths that bees frequently experience, like rain storms, wind, or unusual cold.

  • I’m not a beekeeper but I faithfully watch my garden each day and love to watch the bees pollinate my raspberries. When the wildfire smoke is bad, the bees disappear. Two or three different times.

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