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Lighting a Beekeeper’s Smoker
There are many tools that a beekeeper uses in his/her beekeeping journey. However, there are 2 unmistakable favorites. The hive tool and the bee smoker. Both of these are considered “must-haves” for beekeepers. Using the hive tool comes rather naturally to most of us. However, learning how to light a bee smoker involves a bit more practice.
Though some folks may consider using a smoker on bees to be mean or cruel, it does not have to be the case. In fact, proper use of a bee smoker saves bee lives.
Contrary to popular belief, smoke does not put bees to sleep. Instead the smoke masks some of the alarm pheromones emitted by guard bees. The pheromones signal the colony to attack or defend the hive.
Using smoke breaks down this method of communication (at least temporarily). The beekeeper can now manage the hive with less fuss.
What to Burn in a Bee Smoker
Fire requires fuel. What kind of smoker fuel should you use? There are many options to consider. Of course, you can purchase commercial packs of smoker fuel. It is a good idea to keep a bit on hand for emergencies.
But most beekeepers find themselves using what they have readily available. Dry wood chips, untreated burlap scraps and “pithy” wood are some favorites. But here in my region, dry pine needles are the Cadillacs of fuel for our smokers.
The best burning pine needles are the ones I gather from the forest floor. Landscaping bales of pine needles will work but I have found them to not burn as well.
Start with a Clean Smoker
Over time, smokers get dirty and gummed up – like any other tool that you use. While it is not something to obsess over, it is a good practice to clean your bee smoker at least once a season.
If you are just learning how to start your smoker, I suggest you start with it being empty. Experienced beekeepers often keep half burnt fuel in the chamber for next time.
However, this can clog up the airflow if you don’t know what you are doing. Starting with no material in the fire chamber is easier for most folks.
Choosing a Fire Starter & Material
Many a great beekeeper has started a smoker with matches. And, while some still use matches – most choose to use a long handled lighter or butane torch.
The goal is to create a spark that burns your starter material. A large flame is not necessary unless your material is damp.
Begin with a small amount of starter material. If you are using pine needles, a small loosely packed clump is fine. Other options include a bit of pulp egg carton, cardboard (strips or rolls), untreated pine shavings, a bit of paper, etc.
Do not use any type of chemical accelerant. No gas, kerosene etc. This would produce toxic fumes that might endanger your bees.
Steps to Light a Smoker
- ignite starter material
- get fire going in bottom of fire chamber
- gently pump bellows throughout
- add more fuel and gently pack down
- close lid and pump until smoke is white and cool
Take a small amount of starter material and light one end. Quickly toss the burning material into the fire chamber of your smoker. Gently pump the bellows a few times – this fans the flame with oxygen.
Add a few more pieces of loose material and continue to gently pump the bellows. Be patient, if you rush you may have to start over. The fire should grow larger – use your hive tool to push the fuel down-if needed.
Once you have a good fire (flames) going in the bottom, it is time to add more fuel. Our goal is to have a fire in the bottom with smoldering materials on top. This material will eventually feed the fire below and it also protects the bees from hot smoke.
Add a small handful of pine needles (or other material) – use your hive tool to firmly pack the fuel. If you pack it too hard, your fire will go out and you have to start over. But, fuel packed close together creates the smoldering white smoke that we want.
Close the top and pump the bellows. You should have have cool, white smoke coming out of the nozzle. If you have several hives, you may need to add more fuel to the fire chamber after a while.
It is a good idea to occasionally give the bellows a few pumps during your hive inspections – this keeps the fire burning. You can buy larger sized ones but medium sized smokers work well for beekeepers with less that 4 hives.
Keeping Your Bee Smoker Lit
As exciting as lighting your bee smoker can be, keeping it going can be another challenge to face. Sometimes, it seems that I struggle while in the bee yard and once I’m finished and make it back to the equipment shed – the smoker is suddenly ready to go!
Having the proper burning material and remember to give an occasional pump to the bellows will go a long way toward keeping your smoker burning.
It is a wise idea to take extra fuel and way to ignite material to the bee yard with you. Adding these items to your beekeeper’s toolbox will ensure you have them if needed.
Final Thoughts on Lighting Your Smoker
The use of cool, white smoke is an important aid in beehive inspections. By calming and distracting the bees, the beekeeper has time to make a quick queen check or perform other hive maintenance tasks. With practice, you become more skilled in lighting your bee smoker and keeping it going until you are finished.