The beekeepers smoker is one of the most useful tools in beekeeping. With proper use, a smoker actually saves bee lives. But, you do need to chose the best types of fuel to use in your smoker. There are several good options and your choice may depend in part on what is readily available to you. What should you burn in your bee smoker and what should you avoid?
What do Beekeepers Use to Smoke Bees?
Forget the idea of laying down enough smoke to hide an invading army. That is not necessary. The value of using a smoker is in providing a little bit of cool white smoke.
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Just a bit of the right kind of smoke is needed to calm the hive. Cool smoke calms the bees, especially the older guard bees – whose job it is to defend the colony.
As for how it works? Whether it is by dispersing the alarm pheromone of guards or making the bees think a fire is coming, smoke makes a colony easier to inspect.
Mastering the technique of lighting a bee smoker takes a bit of practice. However, having the best fuel (for you) makes the job easier.
Smoker Fuel for Beekeeping
You have many choices of things to use as fuel in your hive smoker. We want a fuel that will produce a cool, white smoke and stay lit for a while instead of flaming up. The best options 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.
Remember our goal is to produce a cool, white smoker over a period of time. The smoker is not used constantly. It will be set aside and used again after a while.
We want the fire to smolder more than really burn. Yet it must retain enough fire coals to produce smoke when needed.
Using Cotton in the Smoker
Cotton is another old standby for use as hive smoker fuel. You will find it in many forms. Sections of cotton cloth that can be inserted into the smoker.
One of the common ways to use cotton- is bag of cotton stuffins or fibers that bee supplies often sell. I find that this smolders quite well and I often keep a bag on hand.
Check the source when you buy this – we want US grown cottom that has not been treated with any nasty chemicals.
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.
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. 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
Homemade Smoker Fuel
Using Pine Needles in Your Smoker
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.
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.
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.
Cardboard Rolls as Smoker Fuel
Beekeepers use cardboard rolls 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) produces a nice long lasting smoke. Alone, cardboard tends to burn quickly and make a hot fire.
I often use pieces of paper egg cartons as the first first starter and then top them with other materials.
What You Should Not Burn to Smoke Bees
Not every combustible material is suitable for this task. Do not use any petroleum products such as kerosene etc in your smoker fuel.
The smoke produced will be hot and black which is irritating to the bees in the colony and the beekeeper using the smoker.
Avoid blue jean material that is loaded with chemical and dyes. In the past many old school beekeepers used pieces of burlap bags . If you choose burlap be sure to get untreated burlap.
Best Choice for Bee Smoker Fuel
Even a mild mannered colony of honey bees can need a little smoke. Bee temperament changes in reaction to things happening in the colony or environment. Be prepared.
My old favorite is still natural dry pine needle 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.