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Easiest Bee Smoker Fuel to Use

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The beekeeper’s smoker is one of the most useful tools in beekeeping. With proper use, a smoker actually saves bee lives. But, it is important to chose the best fuel for your bee smoker. There are several good options and your choice may depend in part on what is readily available to you. What should you use as bee smoker fuel and and what should you avoid?

Safe Bee Smoker Fuel

Beekeeper lighting smoker with pine needles as smoker fuel image.

Dating back thousands of years, humans used smoke to calm honey bees. Only a small amount is needed. Forget the idea of laying down enough smoke to hide an invading army. That is not necessary.

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The value of using a bee smoker is in providing a little bit of cool, white smoke. To achieve this goal you need proper bee smoker fuel. Light cool smoke and a long burning smoldering fire is the goal.

This can not be achieved with all combustible materials. While you have some options, you really need to care about what you burn in your smoker. Not every material is safe to use in your smoker.

How does smoke calm a colony of honey bees? There are a few theories. Perhaps, it masks the alarm pheromone of older guard bees. Or maybe, the bees think a fire is coming and they are distracted while trying to fill their stomach with honey.

The fact is that proper use of this important beekeeping tool makes hive inspections much easier. Mastering the technique of lighting a bee smoker takes a bit of practice for the new beekeeper. Choosing the best smoker fuel makes the job easier.

Burlap used to light a bee smoker image.

Characteristics of Best Fuel for Beehive Smokers

You have many choices of things to use as fuel in your smoker.  In addition to cool, white smoke – the material needs to stay lit for a while. The best materials have the following characteristics:

  • Easy availability
  • Produces a cool white smoke
  • Stays lit for a while
  • Is non toxic to bees and beekeeper

It is also important to avoid burning anything that may give off toxic fumes. These may harm the bees or make them angry. The whole idea behind a smoker is to calm the colony not rev them up.

We want the fire to smolder more than really burn.  Yet it must retain enough fire coals to produce smoke when needed.

It is best to always have a bee smoker lit and nearby. It is one of your most important pieces of beekeeping equipment. You never know when it will be needed during routine hive inspections.

Best Types of Bee Smoker Fuel

These are some of the most common types of smoker fuel used by beekeepers.

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  • cotton – lint
  • wood pellets
  • dry pine needles – my fav
  • cardboard – egg cartons
  • wood shavings – plant material

Cotton and Lint Smoker Fuel

Cotton is an old standby for use as hive smoker fuel.  You will find it in many forms. Some are sections of cotton cloth that can be inserted into the smoker. They are often purchased in small rolls.

Another option is to use a bag of cotton fiber or stuffings that bee suppliers of sell.  I find that this smolders quite well and I often keep a bag on hand. It makes a good material to put on top of my pine needles after I get the fire started.

Check the source when you buy this – we want US grown cotton that has not been treated with any nasty chemicals.

Old school beekeepers often used twine as well. But, today finding any twine that is not impregnated with preservative or chemicals is almost impossible.

Wood Pellets are Long Lasting

Some beekeepers in my area enjoy using wood pellets.  If you go this route, I would suggest plain hardwood pellets.

Avoid special smoking pellets that provide special “flavors” for seasoning meat.  Honey bees are very sensitive to smell.

Wood pellets can be difficult to get started – you might begin with small pieces of cardboard or another starter and then add your pellets.

Handful of wood pellets for use in a beekeepers smoker image.

The advantage of smoker fuel pellets is that they produce a clean smoke and once started will burn for a long period. 

It does not take a lot of pellets to fire the smoker. But, sometimes pellets alone produce hot smoke unless you top the fire with other materials.

Pellet smoker fuel does not have to be purchased from a bee supply but these Kwick start smoker pellets from Mann Lake work quite well

Dry Pine Needles

Living in the south, I can not write an article about smoker fuel without mentioning pine needles.  Because we are gifted with thousands of pine trees – I can gather dry pine needles in the forest.

If you are not that lucky, you can buy pine needles too.  This is the favorite smoker fuel for beekeepers in my region.

Dry pine needles as fuel for bee smoker image.

Pine needles are easy to start and produce a beautiful white smoke.  The smoke is calming to the bees and does no harm to the colony.

It is important to keep some fuel (even more pine needles) on top of the burning needles in the bottom. Otherwise, you will have hot smoke.  It is the smoldering fuel on top that produces the best smoke.

Using any material with resins, like pine needles, does gum up your smoker over time – a good practice is to clean your smoker each Spring.

With pine needles, you do have to remember to gather them during dry weather.  However, they are light weight and very easy to store in a 5 gallon bucket. Throw in a few dry pine cones too – they work well in your bee smoker.

Cardboard Rolls or Egg Cartons

Beekeepers use cardboard rolls (or bundles) as smoker fuel too.  It can be used as a starter and then cotton, pine needles or other fuels added on top to maintain the flame.

Another way to use cardboard for fuel in the smoker is to create loose rolls that fit down in the smoker chamber. 

These are relatively easy to start and when topped with more fuel (cotton, pine needles, etc) produce a nice long lasting smoke. Alone, cardboard tends to burn quickly and make a hot fire.

I often use pieces of paper egg trays as the first fire starter. Then I add other materials once the fire is well started. Those egg trays also make wonderful homemade beeswax fire starters!!

Brown paper or paper bags can be crumpled up and used as starter.

Wood Shavings – Dried Plant Material

Wood shavings, dried leaves, dried corn cobs or peanut shells can be a part of your smoker fuel lineup. These organic material do burn rather fast. I find them better to use as a starter-than the main fuel source.

Some beekeepers add dried herbs to their beehive smoker. Dried basil, lavender and even citrus peels are found in some smoker fuel recipes.

I approach anything with scent very cautiously. Honey bees are so sensitive to smells that I feel it is best to proceed carefully when using additives.

Fuels to Avoid in Your Bee Smoker

Not every combustible material is suitable for burning in your bee smoker. Do not use any petroleum products such as kerosene, gasoline, lighter fluid etc.  

The smoke produced will be hot and black which is irritating to the bees in the colony and the beekeeper using the smoker.

Avoid denim blue jean material that is loaded with chemical and dyes.  In the past many old school beekeepers used pieces of burlap bags.

That’s okay but today much of the burlap for sale has been treated with chemicals or dye. If you use burlap as smoker fuel -get untreated burlap.

Cool white smoke coming from a lit bee smoker in the apiary image.

A bee smoker with the right type of fuel makes managing honey bees easier. Even a mild mannered colony of honey bees can use a little puff of smoke sometimes.

Bee temperament changes in reaction to things happening in the colony or environment. It is best to be prepared and then use as little smoke as is needed.

My old favorite is still natural dry pine needles as my best smoker fuel.  However, if you do not have access to them or you want to use something else-there are other options available. Consider what is readily available in your area and do some experimentation.