Beekeeping tools and equipment represent a significant cost for any beekeeper. Thankfully, most of these items last for years with proper care. One of the most important tools for a beekeeper is the bee smoker. Because we burn combustible materials inside, it can become a sticky, stinky, sooty mess. At least once a year, knowing how to clean your bee smoker is a skill than can come in very handy.
Give Your Bee Smoker a Yearly Cleaning
How a Bee Smoker Saves Bees
While it may seem like a cruel treatment, the bee smoker is actually a tool that helps save bee lives – when used properly. A small amount of cool white smoke helps distract the bees from hive manipulation tasks.
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This is good for the beekeeper and the bees. When bees are not prompted to attack, fewer die as a result of stinging.
Not having angry bees bouncing off the veil allows the beekeeper to complete the hive inspection more quickly. Brief inspections are less stressful for the colony.
A small amount of cool, white smoke does no harm to the honey bee colony. However, some maintenance is required to keep the smoker working well.
Why Does Your Smoker Need Cleaning?
Over time, soot and tar residues build up inside the smoker and in the top and spout. This is no surprise, where there is smoke-there is fire. As you burn different combustible materials inside reside builds up.
How fast buildup becomes a problem depends on several factors. If you use your smoker often, it will require more frequent cleaning. Your choice of bee smoker fuel contributes to the issue too.
In my region many beekeepers use dry pine needles for fuel. They are readily available and produce a nice white smoke to calm bees but they do leave more resins behind.
If you do not clean your bee smoker, it may become so clogged up that no smoke will come out!
Methods to Clean Out A Bee Smoker
There are 2 common methods for cleaning out a bee smoker. One is fire and the other is with water. As with most things you purchase today, smokers are not as heavy duty as they once were.
I accept no responsibility for any damage resulting from the use of practices in this article. I am sharing with you what works for me and other beekeepers that I know.
I suggest you attempt to clean your smoker with water first and then you can judge if you need to go farther.
Clean Out the Loose Contents
The first step is to dump out any leftover smoker fuel or ashes from the fire chamber. It is common to leave some material in the chamber because your smoker may still contain sparks when you are done with it.
Some beekeepers place a cork in the spout to smoother out the fire when finished. I used to do this but most of mine have become too beat up to do so.
Even a good smoker can only take falling off the ATV so many times without showing wear.
Once the loose material is removed, you will still have sticky burned residue to contend with. Take your hive tool and scrape away all of the stuck on crud that you can. Pay special attention to the rim where your lid fits onto the smoker base.
If your bee smoker is very new, this may be all you have to do. However, most smokers that have been in use for a couple of years can benefit from some serious Spring cleaning.
How to Clean a Bee Smoke with Vinegar and Water
If your smoker is encrusted with a bit of stuck on crud, you may be able to remove much of it.
Time needed: 6 hours.
General cleanup of a bee smoker using a vinegar and water soak
- Remove Loose Crud from Smoker Lid
Dump any left over contents out of the smoker fire chamber and use your hive tool to scrap away material around the lid. Pay special attention to where the lid fits on the base.
- Remove Bellow from Smoker Base
Most smokers have removeable bellows. This soak method is easier if you locate the screws holding the bellows on the base and remove them.
If you can not do this, you can use cord or wire to hang the smoker in the water but keep the bellows (out of the water). We don’t want water to enter the holes in the bellows.
- Check Air Flow Hole
You will find a small hole near the bottom of the bellows back plate. Sometimes this can get clogged with soot – check it and open with a screw driver if needed.
It’s also a good idea to temporarily store those little nuts on the screws of the bellows until you are ready to reassemble.
- Vinegar Water Soak
Pour 1 cup of white vinegar in a bucket and add enough water to cover the metal parts of the smoker. Let this soak overnight or at least 6 hours.
- Wipe Away Reside
Remove the smoker from the soak and use a rag to wipe away the loosened material. It may not look new but much of the baked on material will wipe off.
- Rinse and Dry Before Reassembly
Thoroughly rinse the smoker of all vinegar water and residue and hang it up somewhere to dry.
- Reassemble the Bellows
Reassemble your smoker and you are ready for a great season of beekeeping.
Using a Propane Torch to Remove Soot from Bee Smoker
Beekeepers that have a heavy duty or older smoker that has seen several seasons of use may go a step farther.
Years of baked on crud may not respond to water and vinegar. For this project, some beekeepers break out the propane torch.
This is also good way to get burned if you are not extremely careful. It must be done outside with all precautions to prevent fire or burns to yourself. A lighted torch is used to apply flame to stuck on crud inside the fire chamber and in the lid.
If you have a love for fire, you may find this very beautiful. Take care to protect the bellows portion of your smoker from flame – otherwise it will be ruined.
The sooty material inside will often begin to burn of its own accord. That’s okay but stay close by to ensure everything is safe. Once the flame goes out, leave the smoker to cool.
When the smoker is completely cool, use your hive tool to scrape out any left over residue. With the plant resins burned away, most of the material will come out easily.
Final Thoughts on Cleaning a Bee Smoker
A honey bee smoker is one of the most important tools for the beekeeper. Take care of your smoker and keep it functioning properly and it will give you years of service.
Yearly smoker cleaning ensures that your tool will work well when you need it most. Even lighting your beekeepers smoker is easier when it is not sticky. Beekeeping is more enjoyable when you have the tools and equipment you need.
Oh and don’t forget, do you need to wash your beekeeping suit? Don’t go to the bee yard smelling like a stinky bear – the bees will not be impressed!