How to Light a Bee Smoker

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As guardians of our important honey bees, there is one skill that every beekeeper needs to master – knowing how to light a bee smoker. This guide will take you through the basic steps of getting your smoker lit. However, the focus is not only on getting the flame going but also producing the cool, white smoke that beekeepers desire. As with any aspect of beekeeping, there are many ways to get the job done – this guide will help you on your journey.

Beekeeper lighting a smoker with a lighter and combustible material.

Sometimes misunderstood (or misused) the beekeeper’s smoker is very important in apiculture. In fact, when used properly it can actually save bee lives.

Gathering Materials

Naturally before you can begin, you need a few items.

  • bee smoker
  • some type of fuel
  • fire source and starter
  • hive tool (optional)

Smokers

Finding a smoker is relatively easy. They come in several sizes and styles but basically are all the same. They have a fire chamber, a top with spout and a bellows.

Smoker Fuel

You can’t have a fire without something to burn and plenty of oxygen. What kind of bee smoker fuel should you use? There are many options to consider including commercial ready to use materials.

But most beginner beekeepers find themselves using what they have readily available. Dry wood chips, wood shavings and dry pine needles are some favorites.

Examples of materials used to fire up a bee smoker, cotton, kindling, pellets, lighter.

Fire Source & Starter Material

Many a beekeeper has started a bee smoker with matches. And, while some still use matches – most choose to use a long handled lighter or even a butane torch.

The goal is to create a spark that gets your starter material burning. A large flame is not necessary unless your material is very damp.

What is starter material? It may be no different than what you regularly burn in the smoker. It simply means a small amount of something “that is very easy to light with a flame”.

If you are using dry pine needles (pine straw), a small amount of loosely packed needles will suffice. Other options to get that first spark started are: a bit of pulp egg carton, cardboard (strips or rolls), untreated pine shavings, small pieces of crumpled newspaper, etc.

Do not use any type of chemical accelerant. No gas, kerosene etc. This would produce toxic fumes that might endanger your bees – or you.

Lighting the Bee Smoker

4 Steps to starting a bee smoker with pine needles.

The steps to getting your smoker working are rather simple – in words. But, it can take a while to get the hang of things in actual practice. Here is the basic outline with some helpful tips.

  1. ignite a small amount of starter material and push down into smoker (with hive tool)
  2. gently pump the bellows and add more kindling (starter material)
  3. get a small fire going well in the bottom of the fire chamber – some flames may come out the top
  4. use your hive tool to push the tinder down into the chamber – gently pump bellows – add more combustible material – gently pack down until chamber is 3/4 full. Close lid and pump until smoke is white and cool
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Keep Your Smoker Going

As exciting as lighting your bee smoker can be, keeping it going can be another challenge. 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!

After all these years, I am still not the best at smoker technique – but I get the job done and you can to.

It is a good idea to occasionally give the bellows a few pumps during your hive inspections – even if you do not need smoke at this minute. This infusion of oxygen keeps the fire burning.

Having the proper burning material and remembering 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 a 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.

Beekeeper's smoker with white smoke after lighting to use image.

Working the Bees

A couple of puffs of white smoke at the hive entrance and you are ready to proceed. Smoke affects bees in a couple of ways.

Contrary to popular belief, smoke does not put bees to sleep. Instead it masks some of the alarm pheromones emitted by guard bees.

By calming them, the beekeeper has time to make a quick queen check or perform other hive maintenance tasks.

Expert Tips

These tips may help you learn how to have success with your smoker technique.

  • always use dry combustibles
  • if you are using longer – burning but hard to light wood pellets – use kindling
  • master the bellow technique – enough puffs but no too many – practice
  • if you are almost finished and notice your smoke is dark and hot – a small amount of greens may help cool the smoke for a few minutes
Adding small amount of green vegetative material to smoke for quick cool down.

Safety

We have to take a moment to consider safety. An open flame is dangerous – burns hurt. (A good reason to keep some honey burn salve on hand.)

And, more than one beekeeper has started a fire unintentionally with a smoker that they thought was out. Keep hands, and face as far away from flames as possible.

Some beekeepers feel it is a good idea to wait to put your veil or beekeeping protective clothing until after the smoker is lit. However, you really should not have that big of a flame in any case.

Maintenance

In a tool that is designed to make smoke we know it doesn’t burn in a clean manner. Over time, smokers get dirty and gummed up.

While it is not something to obsess over, it is a good practice to clean your bee smoker at least once a season. Otherwise, the residue on the rim will make it hard to close your lid. In fact, your whole spout may clog. You will have less trouble lighting your bee smoker if it is relatively free of gunk.

Final Thoughts

Every beekeeper has their own process for lighting a bee smoker. Expect to make some minor adjustments depending on your preferences and the materials you use. With practice, you will become more skilled in lighting your bee smoker and keeping it going until you are finished. Unless you are a bit like me and have to become an expert at – relighting your smoker – 🙂

Beekeeper using pine straw to start a smoker image.

Lighting Your Beekeeper’s Smoker

Charlotte Anderson @ Carolina Honeybees, LLC
A guide showing how to light a bee smoker and get the cool white smoke that beekeepers desire.
5 from 2 votes

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Tools

Supplies
 

  • 1 pkg dry Pine Needles
  • 4 pieces cardboard (optional)

Instructions
 

  • Ignite Starter Fuel
    Take a small amount of starter material (loose dry pine needles or cardboard-bits of egg carton etc) and light one end with your fire source.
    Once the flame is set, 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.
    Starting bee smoker with pine needles image.
  • Add more fuel and pump bellows
    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 and be burning well in the bottom of the chamber. Add a bit more fuel and use your hive tool to push it down. Don’t pack it too tight before the fire is established.
    Adding more smoker fuel to fire chamber during lighting image.
  • Packing more fuel
    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. I usually fill my smoker about 3/4 full.
    Packing fuel into bee smoker with hive tool while pumping bellows image.
  • Close top and pump
    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.
    Cool white smoke coming from bee smoker image.

Notes

  • Where there is smoke – there is fire.  Be careful to avoid burns or causing unintentional fires with your smoker.
  • Do not use chemicals in your smoker.
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