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.
How smoke calms honey bees
Although no one knows for sure, bee researchers believe smoke does two things that 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 of minutes after smoking a hive before opening it. You are giving the bees some time to gorge on honey.
Use kindling to start the fire
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 is 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.
Things I save for my smoker
Here are some of the things I’ve dropped in my bucket:
- popsicle sticks
- peat pots
- kabob sticks
- used section-honey frames
- paper drinking straws (white only)
- wine corks (real cork)
- paper vegetable trays
- old queen cages
These items are in addition to the ones I mentioned before, such as:
- baling twine (non-treated)
- burlap bags (non-treated)
- corrugated cardboard
- cotton fabric (like muslin)
- pine cones
- wood chips
Items that other people recommend include:
- punky stumps
- corn cobs
- dry bark
- peanut shells
- egg cartons
- pony poop
- dried puffball mushrooms
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
Thank you so much for all your helpful and fun info!!
Regarding the smoker fuel, I tend to use it only on a must
need basis- mainly on my double brood hives +- I use pine needles and dried horse poop (from my
6 in the front yard.)
Wow, that’s great. I’m glad to know someone else recycles horse poop. My neighbor has lots, maybe I’ll see if I can borrow some. Do you break it apart or leave it in clumps?
Thanks for the compliment and thanks for writing.
We often add a handful of rabbit pellets, they seem to smoulder forever. Personally, I almost never open a hive without smoking it first (if practical) and keep it on hand once the hive is open. I didn’t do that today and….I got stung! We usually just use hay and dried leaves, but punky wood works really well in my (very limited) experience….
My beekeeping steward uses dried sumac flowers as fuel. I have an abundance of amaranth plants in my back yard and they seem similar and more accessible than the sumac, however I don’t want to hurt my hive with experimentation. I tried to look online to see if other beekeepers use dried amaranth, but I only get websites that recommend the plant for bee pollination gardens. Have you heard about any beekeepers using amaranth?
No, I’ve never heard of it. Be careful, though, you never know how it may affect your bees. Don’t experiment on more than one hive at at time.
Hi Elize, did you ever try the amaranth? I’ve got tonnes of dried amaranth but never tried burning it.
Hi, do you think dried chicken poop would work? I am a beginner beekeeper and at this stage rely on the smoker. Thanks.
I don’t know. Horse manure and cow manure have a lot more fibrous material remaining in them than chicken manure, so I don’t know how well it would burn. You can always give it a try.
I know I’m late to the conversation. I was surprised that you didn’t mention how to cool the smoke, so the keeper isn’t singeing wings off.
Once I have a good burn going, I stuff green grass into the smoker to cool the smoke down.
We are beginner beekkeepers-My daughter and I just wanted to help the bees. We live in an apt but we got a box of wild bees in april 2015 w a queen and not alot of bees. We placed it at my boss’s house in the backyard whojust has fruit trees citrus but 3 neibor adjoinging yards. One was organic garden, one all desert plants and citrus trees and one huge yard unattended just weeds and plants that spring up and the owner never does anything to the backyard. It is ideal because no one uses pesticides.when I went to my boss’s house. I work in his home office.
I would check on the bees everyday. They never bother me he also has 4 small dogs and they never bothered them and the dogs seem to know not to go by the bee box. About 4 months ago I stopped lifting the lid as
I could tell they had worked their way from slate #3 to the end slates as they concentrated entering and exiting by the far corner of the last slates 8 & 9. The bees unlike 4 months ago are really big and fuzzy now. I told my daughter who has the suit and hat. that I think we have to go double decker. When I approached the box these bees now seem agressive and found myself being chased off immediately. My daughter went late in the day but did not use a smoker (!) big mistake I think!! I wasn’t there but
she said she worked quickly and took the lid off put the 2nd box on and immediately closed w the lid. but they came out like hell with alot of them stinging her clothing as she made a dash into the garage for safety. My question is obviously I think we can never approach them without smoking now. Does this mean they are conditioned that anything approaching them now is the enemy and will be in attack mode.
now my boss is scared to go in his backyard as before there wasn’t any issue as they were friendly. Maybe because the colony is bigger now-having been in a safe environment and we do not take any honey from them. they need to be put out where there is acreage not a back yard?
it is a smallish average back yard. We love helping the bees but don’t want any neighbors to get hurt or my boss and his dogs. Please let me know what your experience is with backyard beekeeping and our future with them! Thanks
I was going to recommend the post on aggressive bees, but I see you already found it. Aggressiveness or defensiveness happens at certain times of the year or under certain conditions. It is not learned by the bees but is controlled by pheromones. They will return to normal when the condition that caused it changes.
I use the dried stalks/leaves of herbs and lavender … smells good
That’s another idea I will have to try.
New to this and was doing some research on what fuel to use for smoke when I run across this statement at the end of the article. Added plus: Smoke from some organic materials, like grapefruit leaves and creosote bush, have shown promise in reducing varroa mites, according to preliminary USDA research.
Around the house here in Alaska there’s always plenty of moose pellets (poop) that accumulate over the winter. They’re about an inch long and make great smoker fuel. I pick them up in the spring and dry them in the sun a little to get rid of the snow and ice. They’re basically ground up and compressed willows and birch twigs. I start the bottom layer with a torch, then add a few handfuls on top. They don’t flame, but smolder with a cool smoke. And thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Good idea. There’s nothing like recycling.