The Bee Smoker

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There are a few tools that stand out as indispensable aid to beekeepers. One of these is the beekeeper’s smoker – one of the most important and iconic tools used to help in managing colonies. Let’s explore the bee smoker—its purpose, components, how to choose the right one, and its vital role in maintaining a calm and cooperative hive. You may think it is a negative experience for the colony. But, instead of harming honey bees, a smoker actually saves bee lives.

White smoker from a beekeepers smoker on top of a hive image.

There are numerous types of beekeeping equipment and supplies you can buy. Do you need them all? No, you do not. However, having a bee smoker is a requirement for new beekeepers – in my honest opinion.

Purpose of a Bee Smoker

The primary purpose of using a bee smoker is to enable hive inspections with increased safety for all – the keeper and the bees.

Even the most docile hive of honey bees will sting to defend their home and family. When anything disturbs the hive, guard bees race to meet the intruder.

A controlled release of cool, white smoke has a calming effect on bees. We don’t know how it was first learned that the use of smoke helped lessen the attack response.

But, even the very earliest beekeepers used them. Cave paintings dating back to the early ages depict humans using bee smokers.

Beekeeper calming colony of bees with a smoker image.

Components

The first bee hive smokers were made of clay. Fuel inside the pot was ignited and the beekeeper would blow smoke toward the colony entrance. Later models became more sophisticated and included the use of metal.

The basic beekeeper smoker begins with a round firebox. A grid or inner cup holds the smoker fuel up off the bottom. This allows air to flow under and around the fuel – feeding oxygen to keep the fire going.

Labeled parts of an older bee smoker - spout, top, bellow, wire guard, fire chamber.

A lid on top allows you to add fuel and light the combustible material. When the top is closed smoke comes out of the nozzle. Then, smoke can be directed to wherever the beekeeper needs it.

The bellows are a very important part of your bee smoker. They are responsible for the “puffs”! Bellows consist of a covering and two plates that are hinged at the bottom-located on the back.

Pumping the bellows pushes oxygen through the smoker allowing the fire to burn. Pumping quickly increases the fire – a couple of pumps periodically keeps the fire alive. The smoldering fire releases cool white smoke.

How to Choose a Bee Smoker

You can find many inexpensive smokers to purchase and some beekeepers enjoy making their own homemade bee smokers.

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No harm in that-all you need is a fire chamber to hold fuel and a way to direct the smoke. But honestly, bee smokers are so easy to come by that its not worth the effort for most beekeepers.

Bee smokers are available in several different sizes. The diameter averages about 4 inches and the average height is 10 inches.

It may seem that you need the smallest smoker for just a few hives. And, a larger smoker is better suited to a beekeeper with more colonies.

While this is true – to an extent- it is not the whole story. A smoker with a larger firebox does not need to be refilled as often.

Having a long-burning smoker is handy when you want to take your time with hive inspections. If you are a bit slow, you won’t run out of smoke.

Do keep in mind the size or your hands and your dexterity. The bellows of a large smoker may be hard to manage for someone with small hands or limited dexterity.

Factors to Consider

  • look for good quality stainless steel smoker that will stand up to some drops
  • buy one with a metal cage (heat shield) around the body to help avoid burns
  • if it has a hook that will make it easy to hang up when not in use
  • how hard is it to pump, some bellows materials are more flexible
Old bee smoker being used to calm colony during inspection image.

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Having a large quality made smoker is a big help in beekeeping-if you have the hand strength to use it. However, there are many cheaper models (like this one) that work well too.

You Need Fuel

If you want your bee smoker to produce good safe smoke, you must have the right fuel. Research the many different kinds of fuel for bee smokers. Notice, we are using the term fuel to refer to a combustible substance, not a liquid !

Commercial smoker fuel products are available from beekeeping supply stores. They tend to be easy to light and produce a nice white smoke. Most beekeepers use whatever material they find available in the area. 

Maintenance of a Bee Smoker

Beekeeper lites up a bee smoker with a propane torch image.

Amazingly, your beehive smoker will last for quite a long time. Well, as long as you don’t run over it with the ATV (don’t ask). However, it is a good idea to do some maintenance periodically.

Depending on the type of fuel you choose – you need to clean your bee smoker every year or so. This keeps it working well. Take your hive tool and scrap out any built up residue you see on the lip etc so your top will close well.

Also, find a place to store your beekeeping equipment – including your smoker and fuel during Winter.

White smoker coming from the heat chamber of a bee smoker image.

How to Use a Bee Smoker

The bee hive smoker is a wonderful tool. But, it only works as well as the user who knows how to use it! It is a common beekeeping mistake or problem – to have the darn thing go out just when you need it.

Proper smoker use:

  • lighting fuel in the heat chamber
  • using smoke at the beehive

In how to light a bee smoker, I discuss how to use a small amount of material (pine needles, commercial starter, cardboard egg carton, twigs, dry grass, wood chips, pine cones, etc) for kindling fuel. Avoid any materials that may contain chemicals.

Our first goal is to get some flame started in the chamber in the bottom of the smoker. Adding additional material and gently pumping the bellows to get some good white smoke.

Move fuel will be added if needed as that inside is used up. For only a couple of hives, you may not have to add more fuel. You are ready.

Four major steps to smoke a beehive before inspection.

Smoking the Beehive

1. Cool white smoke is coming from your beekeepers smoker.

2. Give a few gentle puffs near the entrance of the hive. If you have an upper entrance – smoke that one too.

Wait a minute (or two) for the smoke to spread through the hive. You have to give the smoke time to work.

Most colonies do not require a large amount of smoke but its good to always have a bee smoker ready – just in case.

3. Loosen the top (outer cover) and aim a puff of smoke inside- place the cover back on loosely – wait a minute. Then proceed to open the hive.

Periodically, during the inspection if the colony begins to take too much notice of you – a few gentle puffs of white smoke will usually redirect their attention. Another gentle puff at the entrance.

4. If you see a lot of bees lined up along between the frames giving you the stink eye (looking at you with interest), a few soft puffs should move them along.

If you notice the smoke becoming dark, it is time to back off and add some more fuel. Dark hot smoke is not what you want. When finished, close up the hive and place your smoker somewhere it will be safe if still hot!

FAQs

Do bee smokers work?

Bee smokers are very useful in calming honey bee colonies when used properly. Cool, white smoke is needed.

Does smoking bees hurt them?

There is no evidence that using smoke hurts honey bees. Their respiratory system is different than humans. However, it is always a good idea to use a minimum amount of smoke.

Can you smoke bees too much?

Yes, applying too much smoke will only agitate the colony rather than calming and distracting them.

When is a bee smoker used?

Just prior to opening the hive, use of smoke aids in reducing the alarm effect. Small puffs during hive inspections may help keep the colony calmer.

Can you smoke out bees in a house wall?

In general, smoking out bees does not work. Colony members are very reluctant to leave their young or bee brood located in the comb inside.

Final Thoughts

A bee smoker is a useful tool that can help any beekeeper in managing honey bees. As with any tool, overuse or using it improperly can damage the bees and your lungs too. Everything in moderation is the key.

Proper use of a bee smoker will calm honey bees, reduce bee stings and help save bee lives. I consider a protective beekeeping clothing (at least a veil), a hive tool and smoker to be the big 3 important tools for anyone just beginning as a beekeeper

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10 Comments

  1. Sheri Mims says:

    This is a very interesting article and so well written! I had wondered what kind of fuel was used in a bee smoker.

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Thanks Sheri !

  3. Interesting information for a (hopefully) soon to be new beekeeper. Is there anything, other than obvious things like poison ivy, that should NOT be burned for smoke? Maybe something that agitates the bees?

    Thanks

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Hi Kevin. I would not burn today’s burlap (chemicals in it). My 1st choice is dry pine needles. I’ve seen others use: wood pellets, pine cones, straw, dried sumac seed heads, pithy old dry wood pieces etc. The bees dont seem to care alot about the type of smoke. Just be sure the smoker is puffing cool white smoke. If it is dark hot smoke – they will get mad !

  5. Why are smokers so hard to get burning, and only start working well till 1 hour after you are finished????

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    That is so true. I hate to admit that I am not the worlds best with my smoker. I have found that for me – the best way to start one is to tear up pieces of cardboard egg carton. Start the fire with several of those – puff until you have flames – add a small handful of dry pine needles – puff a few more times and then pack gently with more pine needles while puffing. I guess they are like the charcoal my folks used at cookouts when I was a kid. It never really got started well until a couple of hours after supper !

  7. I came to the first 2 hour class bought a lot of stuff will be at boot camp do they have the wire there to hold the honey in the frames

  8. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Most beekeepers do not use the cross wire anymore. I never have. I’m sure you could order some from a bee supply

  9. Hello!
    I am new to this and would like to care well for my bees. For the most part I haven’t used smoke (unless I’m going to do something I know will upset them). Instead I just try to move slowly and carefully. So far this seems to work fine but I realize that I know very little about these complex and wonderful little creatures. Should I be using smoke more often? Does it help reduce their stress levels?
    Thanks so much for all of your writing – your passion really comes through and we really appreciate all the useful knowledge.

  10. Charlotte Anderson says:

    It is truly up to you. I like using as little smoke as possible too. But, if you can keep the colony from getting defensive by using a little smoke – in the long run that is less upsetting than having them attack – for you and the bees.