What Does Smoke do to Bees?
Honey bees are an essential part of modern farming and needed for pollination of many profitable crops. For centuries, smoke has been used by beekeepers as a tool in hive management. But, what does smoke do to bees? Learn why beekeepers use smoke and how it can reduce bee deaths in the beekeeping industry.
Smoke and Bees: How it Works
Depending on your general view of beekeeping, the idea of using smoke in a beehive likely brings one of two images to mind.
Perhaps, you imagine thousands of honey bees choking and gasping for breath. They fall to the surface of the comb in a desperate plea for survival.
Or, you envision bees inhaling puffs of smoke willingly. Then with a peaceful sigh, they go to sleep and rest for a bit.
Well honestly, neither of those situations is the truth. Smoke does have an effect on honey bees behavior but not to either of those extremes.
Disrupting Pheromone Signals
Communication among honey bees is one of the most fascinating systems in the insect world. Each type of bee in a hive works together for the greater good. There must be some way to mass communicate the needs of the colony.
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Actually, honey bees communicate in several ways- including bee dances that help foragers find food efficiently. But another important method of communication is through the use of pheromones.
Think of pheromones as external hormones that notify colony members of various hive conditions. This is much more than just a bees’ sense of smell. The bees themselves give off pheromones – even the young or developing brood have them.
When a beekeeper uses a bee smoker properly, (gentle puffs on the bellows) the smoke disrupts alarm pheromone signals among the bees.
Strong alarm pheromones (isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone) are released to call for help. Smoke makes it difficult for them to coordinate group activities – it slows the defense response.
For example, when smoke slows their communication signals, they may find it more difficult to form an attack force to sting and drive the beekeeper away.
For myself, a fascinating aspect of beekeeping is the way they allow us to view their inner world. In many cases, we can inspect a honey bee colony by removing frames and the bees take little notice of us.
This connection with nature is a great benefit of keeping bees. And, you don’t have to have a lot of hives to enjoy this experience.
However, they are programed to defend the hive against any predator. And you – dear beekeeper – with the top of their home in your hand may be considered a predator.
When bees sense smoke, several behavioral changed are immediately apparent. They move away from the smoke in an excited or agitated manner.
Worker bees rush to frames of honey and begin to feed. Their honey stomach is engorged with honey from the comb.
Scientists believe this may be a survival mode instinct – in case the colony must leave the hive in a forest fire. Taking some food with them may be their only way to survive.
Smoke Used as a Tool In Beekeeping
In my beginner beekeeping class, I tell my students the benefits of using a bee smoker properly. While smoke does not put bees to sleep, it does make colonies easier to manage.
The beekeeper is more likely to work calmly without hundreds of angry bees buzzing around the veil. Fewer bees are accidentally crushed when there is less rush to complete the hive inspection.
Also, the reason why bees sting is to defend the colony. This usually results in their death as the barbed worker stinger become stuck in skin or clothing. Fewer stings mean fewer dead bees.
Risks of Using Smoke
Even though smoke is a useful tool in beekeeping, it is not without some risks. A trained beekeeper learns how to use the smoker properly. Cool white smoke is what you want – not hot, dark smoke with sparks.
Too much smoke can cause harm or respiratory distress to your colonies. And, it is not necessary to use a lot of smoke – we are simply trying to trigger a response that makes the colonies easy to manage. You are not trying to drive the bees in a direction with pure physical force.
The choice of fuel for your bee smoker is also important. Non-toxic natural materials such as dry pine needles, wood chips, organic burlap or wood pellets are a good choice. Avoid any smoker fuel that may give off toxic fumes.
Fire is always a danger when working with an open flame. More than one beekeeper has experienced a smoker that turns over and sets nearby combustible material on fire.
Some of us have even been pulled over by the cops because a smoker in the back of the truck was giving off so much smoke – they thought the car was on fire. (LOL)
Take care when using your smoker to avoid fires, burns to yourself or inhaling excessive smoke into your lungs.
Some beekeepers want to resist using smoke in their hives. There are a few alternatives to smoke that you may try.
However, please understand that they just do not work as well as smoke. Even if you want to try some of them, it is a good idea to keep your bee smoker and fuel nearby. Then, you can quickly light your smoker if needed.
- water mist
- essential oils
- liquid bee smoke
Water mist: This technique uses water in a spray bottle. Spraying the bees with a fine mist calms them down and reduces the likelihood of flying. But, it is not as effective as smoke and makes the bees wet and uncomfortable.
Essential oils are also used in beekeeping for various purposes. These natural oils, such as lavender or lemongrass may be added to the water to calm bees.
Use essential oils with caution, they are natural but powerful. Any unwanted effects that may disrupt the colony, which relies so much on scent cues, are unknown to me
Bee brushes can be a handy tool to flick a few bees off a frame. This works good when harvesting frames of ripe honey to remove a few bees. But, brushing seems to make bee angry and I do not recommend it as a smoke replacement.
Liquid Bee Smoke. You may hear of some beekeepers using a mixture of liquid smoke to calm bees. I am very cautious about putting any chemicals inside the hive. But, this mixture seems to work to a degree.
There are reports of it helping to slow a problem with robbing bees – when you might not have time to light a smoker. The small sachets you buy at a bee supply are mixed with water.
However, it does not direct the bees in a direction as good as regular smoke and it can stain and contaminate honey if used too frequently.
Cool white smoke is a valuable tool for beekeepers of all skill levels. When used properly, it does no lasting harm to the colony or the honey inside the hive.
Every method of bee management has advantages and disadvantages. Learn how to protect the health of your colonies and yourself.