beekeeping equipment

Many types of smoker fuel: What’s your smoke?

Smoker fuels: A lit moker-filled-with-alfalfa-pellets. © Rusty Burlew.

Several years ago I wrote a post about what beekeepers burn in their smokers. Later, Bill Reynolds of Minnesota added a comment to that post, recommending adding a handful of green grass to a fast-burning smoker to cool down the smoke and avoid singeing wings. Good point.

One of the things I keep handy in my bee shed is a bucket for storing miscellaneous things to burn. Things that land in that bucket include:

  • popsicle sticks
  • peat pots
  • kabob sticks
  • chopsticks
  • toothpicks
  • used section-honey frames
  • paper drinking straws (white only)
  • wine corks
  • 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)
  • string
  • pine cones
  • wood chips

Items that other people recommend include:

  • punky stumps
  • straw
  • corn cobs
  • peanut shells
  • egg cartons
  • pony poop
  • dried puffball mushrooms

Lately, I’ve been burning alfalfa pellets designed for horses. These burn cool and smoky and have a nice odor. Mine are about twenty years old and probably free of neonicotinoids, but be wary of plant material that may contain systemic pesticides. The world is becoming complex and full of hidden dangers, so it is risky to take products at face value.

Also avoid burning anything with paint, plastic coatings, or dyes. One thing I like about using an assortment of materials is that it lessens the chance of an overdose of any single chemical that does happen to sneak in.

To get the fire started I use old pieces of brood comb and propolis. Whenever I scrape frames or boxes, I have two buckets at my side: one for clean wax that is suitable for crafts, and one for dirty, broody wax that I use for starting fires. Throw a small chuck of wax in the smoker along with the slow-burning fuels and you can get a good fire going in no time. Then take Bill’s advice and slow it down with wet grass.

So what do you smoke? Have I missed something?

Honey Bee Suite



  • You might be careful of baling twine. If I remember correctly, the sisal twine that we used to buy was treated with something to preserve it and keep it from rotting, at least for a while. We used it for round bales, I have never put up square bales, so that might be a different material altogether.

    • Christy,

      I just scrape the inside with an old wooden spoon. It’s not perfect, but it gets the bulk of it.

  • I’m located in South Central Ontario where we have lots of sumac bushes. I like to collect the dried flower/seed bunches in the fall or spring and burn them. They seem to smoulder well and are a handy size.

  • I’ve been using ‘organic’ burlap bags from a local coffee roaster, but I get a lot of creosote. I’m not sure if the creosote is from the burlap or twigs. Any thoughts on that? (Love your blog rusty, thanks for sharing)

    • Rick,

      It’s not the material you are burning that causes the soot, it is the nature of a smoker. In most appliances—say a car or wood stove—you want combustion to be as complete as possible. In other words, after the fuel has burned you want to be left with nothing but water and carbon dioxide. There will always be some particulates, but you want as few as possible.

      In a smoker, however, it is the opposite. You want incomplete combustion. You want to be left with many particulates (smoke). To do that, you starve the flame of oxygen, which cools the fire and gives off lots of particles. Some of these particles leave as smoke and some stick to the inside of your smoker.

      Basically, whatever you burn in a smoker will leave lots of soot.

  • Rusty, I make bundles of wood shavings (small animal bedding) rolled up into burlap packets tied with cotton string. I dry catmint over the winter and crumble that into the wood shavings first…sweet smoke, the bundles smoulder for a long time, and it is easy to pop a new one into the smoker and squash it into the embers…a few puffs of the bellows and it it all lit and smoking too. I start the packets with a propane torch (small one)…easy to pack in the “burn box” and starts the smoker quickly.

    • W2,

      That sounds like a fun wintertime bee project. Do you think lemon balm would work? I have loads of it.

  • I use Casuarina leaves – you may call them Iron wood or something like it. They make a great smoke and in my case are local. Dried cow manure is a favourite here too.

  • I am using the dried stems of herbs that I have processed: mints, lavender, rosemary, lemon balm and bee balm, sage, bay, etc. They burn well and have a wonderful smell. I don’t think it’s my imagination that the bees calm a lot more with this smoke than the pine needles I have used.

    Be careful with baling twine. Most of it is treated with fungicides and pesticides to deter mice and mold. I used to use it until I found out. I’m not sure about burlap; probably depends on the intended use.

    You’re right, it’s very complicated out there.

  • In Georgia, the vast majority use pine straw. Its lights fast, produces lots of smoke and is long-lasting when stuffed full (2-3 hours is typical).

    The possible downside is creosote. However, in regular use during the last 18 months, I’ve not had any problems with it.

  • I use dried white pine needles. Love your list – will definitely remember the wet grass too.

  • I like to save all the herb trimmings…lavender, rosemary, thyme, etc, then let them dry out and use them. If you burn lemon grass it smells really good

  • Adding dried herbs such as sage, lavender, and basil add to the ceremonial gesture of peace, almost like a smudge stick.

  • I so enjoy your posts. Got a chuckle, which I really needed, when I read in tiny print under the picture that alfalfa pellets smell like pot. I lost my strongest hive and spring harvest to wax moth a week ago, then had a bad heart attack 2 days later. You never know how much your posts may put a smile on someone’s face.

    • Valerie, I wouldn’t use dryer lint unless your laundry is completely free of synthetic fabrics.

  • I use the wood pulp based cat litter tray stuff. Pine needles from the forest floor are great and cool.

  • Rusty,

    My neighbor has a pellet-burning woodstove: she uses a handful of those pellets. I’ll mention to her to check possible chemical content.

    Side question, about old brood comb: I innocently tried to render war from some. Not worth the effort – it’s mostly cocoon, isn’t it? My question: what happened to the wax that those cells started out as?

    No matter what material I use (burlap, scrap wax, water maple twigs ) my smoker operates on the Campfire Principal: starts burning really well after you run out of marshmallows – or finish your inspection.


  • I use dried herbs like rosemary, sage, lemongrass, etc. I have an herbalist friend who doesn’t use a smoker and uses an herbal blend spray (Im certain lemon grass is in it along with some other calming herbs) and has had great success over the 30+ years she’s been a beekeeper. Reading how smoking forces bees to engorge bees to consume large amounts of honey, I am leaning towards the decision to stop using the smoker. do you have any experience with this? I am trying to learn more to work with my bees naturally and protect myself in the process.

    • Amber,

      I rarely use my smoker. Maybe two or three times a year at most because the smoke makes me sneeze.

  • In the Northeast we have stands of older white pines that shower the roadsides with an abundance of long needles every fall. On a nice dry day I collect them in leaf bags and store them in my cold garage. The pine needles produce a sweet smelling cool smoke that billows white when it’s at the right temperature and, if I stuff the cylinder, the smoker will stay lit for long periods without a lot of fuss. I have favorite collection spots and always wonder what folks think when they see me on the roadside raking needs into bags. But I think I may be starting a trend. This year a neighbor came by and presented me with a leaf bag he collected saying “I thought you could us these” he was right I’m using his bag right now.

  • My long time friend in Alaska burns dried moose droppings but since I do not have that resource I use dried elk droppings which works great. I guess that qualifies as recycling. Phil

  • I’ve used pine needles too. I really stuff the smoker full once I get a fire going in the bottom. I also use sticks that drop off my aspen and willow trees.

  • I worry about my bees a lot! And I worry about using cardboard in the smoker, because of the chemicals it might contain. The same could apply to other manufactured products – we just don’t know what is in them. So I prefer to stick with punky wood and pine cones. Works for me.

  • For years I used very well seasoned horse apples but they are harder to find now that we are in Western Washington. I have found that rotten Red Cedar wood works very well. It burns for a long time an and smells nice. I get most of what I use by tearing apart Cedar stumps that are rotted out to the point I can take them apart with my hands. I seek these stumps out during the summer and store in a dry place for when they are needed. I start the smoker with dry grass twists or blank newsprint to avoid any chemicals.

  • As mentioned earlier, pine straw is my fuel of choice for the smoker, though, depending on the job to be done, I’ll also use a sugar spray w/Honey-B-Healthy. I prefer White Pine (Pinus strobus), but it can burn hot and very acrid. For this reason, I stuff green grass at the top after the charge is going. It seems to cool the smoke and make the charge last longer. One drawback is heavy creosote buildup. I’ll occasionally have to burn off the buildup w/ a torch.

  • There are a few post here with a note about sumac seeds. I use them too and the smoke has a nice smell to it too.

  • I often use sage or pine cones to make smoke. I’ll also add grass or dead leaves to the mixture. Usually start the smoker with wood chips used in hamster/gerbil cages.


  • Two words of caution:

    1. Dryer lint may contain manmade fibers, a no-no.

    2. Old combs – if the hive was treated with chemicals, the combs may contain chemicals.

  • I struggled getting a fire to light until I started using dryer lint. Always plentiful. Add a number of small sticks to it – about quarter inch in diameter.

  • I live in Northern California on the coast and am surrounded by eucalyptus trees… They are very messy, but their leaves make a wonderful, cool smoke that has a moderately nice smell. I have read the oils in the leaves, and ultimately in the smoke, are a good deterrent for bugs and mites.

  • Being from South Africa we work with African bees so smoke is essential to mask the smell of the bees alarm pheromones. We use dried pine needles mainly. very cool smoke with a pleasant smell. What ever you use remember you will inhale some too so make sure it isn’t toxic. some woods like pepper tree produce quite toxic acrid type smoke, also burning any cloth material with any kind of chemical dye, old t-shirts denim etc may not be so great IMO.

  • Paper to start, then a cardboard cylinder, followed by old hay, baling twine (natural) or pine needles.

  • I use shredded paper. If I am going to need a longer burn I wad some of the shredded paper into tight balls and pack them tightly in the smoker.

  • I use dried pine needles that I pickup off the ground and save from nearby pine trees. When I run out of those, I go get a bag of cedar pet bedding chips. They light easily, smell great and produce a lot of white smoke. By the way: how do you know “Alfalfa pellets smell a little like pot” ?? 🙂

  • Well I am from the South and I did not know that you could use anything other than pine straw gathered in untreated wood lots. But I am also a farmer and when I saw the bailing twine on your list, well, I am certain that you know that most bailing twine is treated. Right? It is kind of like up-cycling used wood pallets, a lot of those have chemicals in them that I would not want in my house. I Googled for information on twine and did find a couple of sources of untreated twine but not in the local stores. Following is an excerpt from one twine add, “Biodegradable and treated to resist insects and vermin, this twine is both safe for the environment and your crops. Uniform for consistent baling, this sisal twine has a 290 lbs. tensile strength.”

    • David,

      Baling twine used to be a popular smoker fuel. Yes, now you have be be careful of your source. The twine I have is about 20 years old, manufactured before treating it was common. It is too old for baling but is still a great fuel.

  • Hey, just found your site. I was looking for drone traps and just kept going. I’m new this year, but I’ve found what works for me and my bees so far. Rabbit Pellets, I raise rabbits too and I have an abundance of them. They are basically dried balls of alfalfa, I feed my rabbits only natural foods, mostly from my garden this time of the year. But I start out with pine needles then cap it off with about a half of a water bottle of rabbit pellets. The bees like it and it smokes for a long time.

  • Rusty,

    Ever hear of any research done to test different types of smoke on mites?

    I wonder if you were to use something like dried thyme in your smoker would you cause mites to drop off your bees?


    • Gene,

      I actually wrote a paper on this once upon a time. As with most mite treatments, the problem is all the mites under the capped cells, which are protected from the smoke. Still, it might be worth an experiment.

  • I don’t smoke my girls. I have 12 hives and don’t even own a smoker. So when I read what you are using, I have crazy thoughts of smoked sock flavored honey on morning toast. And let’s not go down the path of ~dung~?!! LMAO!! I am not knocking anyone, just having a good laugh.

    I use sugar water with a good dose of HBH and also working on the effects of some other essential oils. Some for mites and most for calming those half dozen girls who insist on raising up the alarm call. I try to make sure that smell is covered by something calming.

    The only time I really have trouble is the dearth. During that time when I walk up to the hive and their hum is not right, I don’t bother them. It’s not worth it to me for 25 or more of them to die for me to look in on them.
    Plus for me it’s nice to see them slurping up the sugar water with the essential oils than gulping down honey stores.

    That being said, if your hive is really ornery, smoking may be best for you and them.

    Wondering/Suggestion: when the silly high school rebels can’t get pot – some will smoke catnip – they say it has similar effects (??) have a ton of it planted and the bees and bumblebees get all sleepy in it…..wonder if it would help if you smoked the bees with some of it?

  • Speaking of pot… I have quite a few dried hemp plants hanging around — it’s legally grown here in Latvia and is the essential ingredient of a national dish: hemp butter!

    There are 26 varieties of cannabis certified by the European Union for commercial cultivation. All have negligible levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the key ingredient in marijuana/hash.

    It’ll be interesting to see how my lot react to the fragrance of hemp smoke.

  • I’m new to beekeeping and someone just told me to use charcoal briquettes that you would use in a barbecue grill. Has anyone heard of this? Is it safe? I always thought they were difficult to start, but they do seem to stay lit. I would assume that the self starter ones would be easier to start, but also have the lighter fluid or something in them that would be bad for the bees. I would also think that they would produce a hotter smoke. Any thoughts? Thanks

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