If you’ve read my previous post about smokers, you know I’m not a fan. Nevertheless, I use one from time to time and have tried a variety of fuels.
Although no one knows for sure, bee researchers believe smoke does two things which calm honey bees. First, the smoke tends to mask the alarm pheromones that are released by the guard bees when they believe their hive is threatened. Without the ability to detect the pheromone, the rest of the bees don’t know anything is amiss.
Secondly, smoke seems to be a warning to the bees that they may have to evacuate their home. Before bees evacuate, they fill their stomachs with honey so they will have the energy necessary to start building a new place to live. Once their stomachs are full they are less able to curve their abdomens into the stinging position. (Think of touching your toes after a huge meal.)
It’s because of the second reason that you wait a couple minutes after smoking a hive before opening it. You are giving the bees some time to gorge on honey.
Most beekeepers like to use some kind of kindling to start the fire, and then feed it with something more substantial. Newspaper, dry pine needles, or commercial starter pellets are popular choices for starting a smoker. The main consideration with anything you use is that it be free of chemicals, plastics, paint, rubber, preservatives, or dyes. Any of these items could release toxic fumes when burned, causing injury or death to the bees.
Personally, I have a bucket where I throw things I might use as fuel, including sisal baling twine, burlap bags, corrugated cardboard, old cotton fabric, string, and pine cones. I also like wood chips—the kind used for animal bedding—and I keep a bag of those on hand as well.
Other popular fuels are punky wood from tree stumps or rotting logs, straw, dry corn cobs, dry bark, peanut shells, and paper egg cartons. You want the material to burn slowly with a cool flame and produce lots of non-toxic smoke. Every source of material will burn a little differently, so you just have to experiment.
British beekeepers—actually the British in general—are a very creative bunch. From their ranks I have heard that dried wild pony droppings make exceptional fuel (no word on where to find these), and dried puffball fungus lulls bees into a trance (no word on what it does to the beekeeper). By the way, I’m not recommending these items—just reporting.
Once you’re done smoking, stuffing a handful of fresh grass into the smoker spout will suffocate the flame and conserve the remaining fuel.
Honey Bee Suite