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Using the Beekeeper’s Smoker
One of the most iconic tools in beekeeping – the bee smoker sometimes gets a bad reputation. But, instead of harming honey bees, this is one piece of beekeeping equipment that actually saves bee lives. Producing cool smoke that calms the hive, it is one of the most necessary tools for any beekeeper. Choosing a good beehive smoker is not hard and you have a wide range of purchasing options for both the smoker and smoker fuel.
For thousands of years beekeepers have been using smoke to calm honeybees. No one knows, how the first beekeeper discovered the use of smoke in managing bees.
However, cave paintings dating back to the early ages depict beekeepers with smokers.
What Does a Bee Smoker do?
Even the most docile hive of honey bees will defend their home and family. When anything disturbs the hive, even the beekeeper, the colony becomes aggitated.
Unaware of the beekeeper’s good intentions, guard bees race from the hive in force to meet the intruder. They are ready to sting and give their lives for the colony.
We believe smoke affects honey bees in several ways. Doing no lasting harm to the bees, it makes necessary hive inspections possible.
Upon sensing smoke, bees in the colony go to the nearest cells of stored honey. They quickly filled their stomachs completely full of honey.
Perhaps, this is an instinctive behavior meant to help the colonies survive during a real forest fire.
When engorged with honey, the worker bee is not as nimble with her stinger. She is less inclined to sting than a bee who is not not filled with honey.
Using a Smoker Masks Bee Alarm Signals
Another way that smoke aids in beekeeping, is by masking alarm signals. Guard bees release alarm pheromones into the air when disturbed.
The beekeeper may smell a distinct odor like bananas when the hive is aroused. These pheromones call more bees to the battle.
It is believed, that smoke helps mask the alarm pheromones. Thereby delaying or reducing the colonies reaction to a disturbance.
When bees attack to defend their hive, some bees will die. Honey bees sting to protect their colony. Stinging usually results in bee death.
Every good beekeeper understands the importance of colony inspections. Proper use of a bee smoker will calm the honey bees and help save bee lives.
I consider a veil, hive tool and smoker to be the big 3 important tools for any beginning beekeeper.
What is a Smoker Made of?
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.
A lid on top of the smoker allows you to add fuel and light the smoker. When the top is closed smoke comes out of the nozzle. Then, smoke can be directed to where ever the beekeeper needs it.
The bellows consist of a covering and two plates that are hinged at the bottom-located on the back of the smoker.
Pumping the bellows pushes air through the smoker allowing the fire to burn and smolder releasing smoke.
You can find many inexpensive smokers to purchase but some beekeepers enjoy making their own homemade bee smokers. No harm in that-all you need is a chamber to hold fuel and a way to direct the smoke.
But honestly, smokers are so easy to come by that its not worth the effort for most beekeepers.
Qualities of the Best Bee Smokers
- look for good quality metal that will stand up to some drops
- buy one with a metal cage 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
Choosing a Good Smoker for Bees
Bee smokers are available in several different sizes. It may seem that you need a small smoker for just a few hives. And, someone with 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.
Having a large quality made smoker (like this one) is a big help in beekeeping if you have the hand strength to use it.
Finding the Best Bee Smoker Fuel
If you want your bee smoker to produce smoke, you must have fuel. There are many different kinds of smoker fuel. 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. Cotton, burlap cloth, wood pellets, pithy wood, dried sumac flower heads, corncobs and others are popular types of bee smoker fuel.
Natural Fuel for the Smoker
The type of natural smoker material available will depend on where you live. But for me, it is dry pine needles. They are free but have to be collected.
This requires thinking ahead as I have to collect them when the ground is dry. A long period of rainy weather can leave one in a pine needle shortage.
It is a good idea to collect a large quantity of pine needles and store them in a 5 gallon bucket for the rainy season.
Also, find a place to store your beekeeping equipment – including your smoker and fuel during Winter.
How to Light a Bee Smoker
Our first goal when lighting our smoker is to get some fire started in the bottom of the chamber. There are several materials and methods to use – I will share one that works for me.
Take a small amount of material (pine needles, commercial starter, cardboard egg carton, etc) this is your kindling fuel. This type of fuel is easy to start but may burn up quickly.
Use a fire source (match or lighter) to start a flame with your kindling. Drop the burning material into the bottom of the heat chamber. (Be careful – don’t burn yourself!) Gently pump the bellows to add oxygen to the fire.
Add a little more material to your small blaze, don’t pack it down – it should fit loosely in the chamber -continue gently pumping the bellows. Continue until the heat chamber is about 1/3 full of material.
Once the additional material is burning, it is time to add more smoker fuel materials to the heat chamber.
If you used a different material just for starting the fire (i.e. pieces of cardboard egg carton) now it is time to switch over to your major smoker fuel. Now you can use your hive tool to gently pack material in the chamber.
If all goes well, you should be able to pump the bellows and get some good white smoke by now. Over the next while, you will continue to add new smoker fuel to the chamber as that inside is used up.
I often use pieces of cardboard egg carton to start my smoker and then use pine needles, cotton smoker fuel or other as the main burning material. But if I don’t have any special kindling material, dry pine needles work well.
How to Use a Bee Smoker
Once the smoker is puffing cool, white smoke. Give a few gentle puffs near the hive entrance. Wait a minute for the smoke to spread through the hive.
Loosen the top (outer cover) and puff a little smoke inside – wait a minute. Then proceed to open the hive. Most colonies do not required a lot of smoke but its good to always have a bee smoker ready – just in case.
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.
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.
And don’t forget that you need to clean your bee smoker every year or so to keep it working well.
Final Thoughts on Bee Smokers and Their Use
A bee smoker is a useful tool that can help any beekeeper in managing honey bees. Produce cool white smoke from non-toxic burning fuel that will calm your bees.
Hot black smoke makes bees mad – you have been warned…..