What Does Smoke do to Bees?

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Step into the enchanting realm of beekeeping, where beekeepers have employed smoke as a trusty ally in hive management for centuries. There’s no intention to harm the bees—quite the opposite! Throughout this article, we’ll unravel the mysteries of what smoke does to bees and gain a deeper understanding of why beekeepers rely on this age-old practice.

Beekeeper smoking a colony of honey bees in a hive.

When used correctly, smoke plays a pivotal role in calming the colony reaction to a disturbance. This is important for the beekeeper to be able to perform routine beehive management tasks. It is safer for the bees and the beekeeper.

The Science of Smoke & Bee Behavior

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. Besides, while they need oxygen (just like us) bees do not have lungs but a very different respiratory system.

Behavioral Changes

Honey bees 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.

Smoke does affect bees and several behavioral changes are immediately apparent. They move away from the smoke in an excited or agitated manner.

Bee Behavior Caused by Smoke

  • distraction
  • less agile
  • masking alarm pheromones

Workers Fill Up With Honey

Upon sensing smoke, many bees in the colony go to the nearest cells of stored honey. Thoughts are temporarily distracted from attack. They quickly fill their honey stomachs completely full of honey.   

Perhaps, this is an instinctive behavior meant to help the colonies survive during a real forest fire. If they need to leave – at least they have some food to take with them. We don’t know for sure.

Engorged Bees Less Likely to Sting

Another situation that occurs when the bees fill up is that their agility suffers. When engorged with honey, the worker bee is not as nimble with her stinger.

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She is less inclined to sting than a bee who is not not filled with honey. Or course, she still has the capacity but her movement and flight is not as agile.

Smoke Masks Alarm Pheromones

Communication among honey bees is one of the most fascinating systems in the insect world. Each individual bee in a hive works together for the greater good. There must be some way to mass communicate the needs of the colony.

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 bee 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 disturbed, strong alarm pheromones (isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone) are released to call for help. The beekeeper may smell a distinct odor like bananas when the hive is aroused.

When a beekeeper uses a bee smoker properly, (gentle puffs on the bellows) the smoke disrupts alarm pheromone signals among the bees.

Smoke makes it difficult for them to coordinate group activities – it slows the defense response. They may find it more difficult to form an attack force to sting and drive the beekeeper away.

The proper use of smoke aids in delaying or reducing the bee colony’s reaction to a disturbance.

Smoke applied to honey bees in the hive and outside.

Smoke Used as a Tool In Beekeeping

In my beginner beekeeping class, I tell my students the benefits of using smoke properly in the hive. 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 and close the hive.

Also, bees sting is to defend the colony and usually die as a result. Their barbed stingers become stuck in skin or clothing.

Fewer stinging situations mean fewer bees have to die. While smoke does not put bees to sleep, it does make colonies easier to manage.

The use of smoke allows the beekeeper to complete necessary hive inspections. No lasting harm is done to the bees and hive life goes back to normal soon after.

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 produce cool white smoke – not hot, dark smoke with sparks.

Too much smoke can cause harm or respiratory distress to your colonies – and yourself. And, it is not necessary to use a lot of smoke on honey bees.

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 Safety

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.

Beekeeper preparing to smoke a beehive by relighting smoker tool with cardboard.

Smoke Alternatives

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 bee smoker if needed.

  • water mist
  • essential oils
  • brushes
  • 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

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.

However, 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

Brushes

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 bees angry and I do not recommend it as a smoke replacement.

Liquid 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 even 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.

FAQs

Why do beekeepers use smoke?

The major way that a bee smoker aids in beekeeping, is by masking alarm signals released by guard bees. 

Is smoke harmful to bees?

Too much smoke can cause bees to become confused and angry. It can also ruin the taste of the honey in the hive because beeswax can absorb the odor. Proper limited use of cool white smoke should be no problem.

Do bees hate the smell of smoke?

We don’t know if bees hate the smell of smoke but it does trigger certain behaviors such as: moving away and going to the comb to fill up on honey.

Does smoke make bees aggressive?

Cool, white smoke calms honey bees but hot, dark smoke makes them more aggressive.

Final Thoughts

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.

For myself, a fascinating aspect of beekeeping is the way they allow us to view their inner world. 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.