A History of Smoking Bees
We have always known that smoke calms bees—even long before the smoker (as we know it today) was invented.
Evidence of this is the stone carving Abu Gurab, dating back to around 2400 BC, which shows the different stages of ancient Egyptian Beekeeping. It depicts a person smoking bees, likely using cow dung to do so!
The modern bee smoker was invented by Moses Quinby in 1873 in New York. His original design was later improved upon by Tracy F. Bingham. Since then, it’s been modified numerous times to keep streamlining the design and process.
The method of smoking bees when handling their nest is practical and useful because it alerts bees to the fact that you’re about to enter their hive. It also makes them docile enough not to attack you. This doesn’t only keep you safe, it’s also beneficial to the bees.
What Does Smoke Do to Bees?
Bees release a pheromone to talk to one another. They communicate this way to warn the hive of danger, injury, or intermittent threats. It’s the same pheromone that you should be afraid of when a bee stings you—the call for other bees to attack.
This signal riles them up and makes them naturally (and blindly) aggressive. Smoke masks this pheromone. That’s why we use it. It decreases the likelihood of the colony launching a full-scale attack on us.
Beekeepers aren’t perfect. Even though we hate to admit it, every now and then we accidentally annoy or hurt our own bees. Smoking them prevents a swarm attack if this happens.
Smoke also triggers a bees’ feeding response to danger, as if there were a forest fire. A colony’s fire drill is to go into the hive and binge on as much honey as possible.
This gives them the energy stores they need to be able to leave their home and prepare to build a new nest. At the same time, they’re just like us—when their bellies are full, they are relaxed, satisfied, and even downright lazy. Sometimes they eat so much that they can’t even fly properly.
All of this means that when you go in to manage your hive, the bees will be distracted and grounded.
Bee Smoker Components
Bee smokers are not complicated devices. You could even use a makeshift one—essentially just a can with a fire in it. You just poke some holes into it and then swing it around to release the smoke.
Modern designs have bellows and a spout for aiming the smoke, and there are lots of great designs to choose from. Still, there are standard features that your smoker should have.
Stainless steel is the norm because it’s durable and fireproof. Make sure that your smoker has heat protection, otherwise you will burn your hands. You’ll also want a mount or hook so that you can stow it easily when it’s not in use. You should be able to hold and operate it with one hand, should you ever need to.
There are a number of substances that you can use for fuel. You want to start with something that catches fire very easily and stays lit long enough to ignite the kindling. Shredded bits of wood, cotton, dried-up leaves, or hay are all suitable choices for either.
Long gas lighters are preferred to get your fire started. If you’re struggling, you can use a pinecone or some paper (or anything else disposable and non-toxic). Just light it and throw it into your can.
How to Operate a Bee Smoker
To start off with, you need to good quality smoker that isn’t going to give up on you halfway through the day. Take a look here at some of my favorite bee smokers currently on the market.
Begin by opening the top of your smoker to start a fire inside the canister, then add your kindling on top of it. Close the lid, and pump the bellows a little to help the fire get going.
The airflow is limited with the lid closed which causes a lot of smoke. This is exactly what you want. Pumping the bellows forces air out and fuels the fire a little more. You can add more kindling, but packing too much of it could kill the flames.
Another great tip here is that you don’t want your kindling to be stuffed too far down into the bellows. It will prevent the air from flowing efficiently.
Keep the process of squeezing the bellows and packing the kindling going, and then get your fuel stack up at the top.
It might take a while to figure out how much to stack, and how much kindling and fuel to use. Only trial and error will show you the perfect balance between smothering your fire or letting it burn too quickly.
Once the fire is going smoothly, you’ll only need to pump the bellows every now and then. Still, keep an eye on things to ensure that you have enough fuel left. You don’t want to run out at a critical moment.
Go slow and easy with the smoke. It can be tempting to use as much as possible so that the bees are sedated, but too much smoke can cause other problems. It might even affect the quality of your honey or wax.
Start with three or four pumps at the entrance of the hive and wait a couple of minutes before opening it. This should have the bees feeling nice and relaxed by the time you are ready to go in. Another one or two squeezes once you open the hive will ensure your safety and prevent the bees from escaping.
Remember that though it’s only smoke it can become quite hot, especially to a tiny little bee. Stay at least eight inches away from the bees so as not to overwhelm or harm them. You need to be sure that the smoke will disperse the way you need it to.
You can let off a puff of smoke every five minutes or so, just so that the bees remain aware of the stimulated danger. Also release a puff if the bees become excitable, or if they seem frustrated or aggravated.
Lastly, be aware of the intense heat for your own safety. If you aren’t careful you could burn yourself. Hold your smoker by the bellows. The cans get very hot and touching them, or the lid, could injure you and even leave unpleasant blisters. In that case, you might as well have been stung.
You will learn how to use your smoker in no time, but you’ll understand its value before you even use it. It makes opening your hive and managing your colony so much easier. Going without one is stressful and causes avoidable anxiety.
Bee smokers are easy to use and invaluable to beekeepers, especially those who manage honeybees. They protect you from stings and protect your bees from stinging. They keep the peace when you go in to manage your hive and you can’t afford not to have one.
They’re inexpensive too. Just be careful when you use one. You don’t want to harm your bees or hurt yourself. After all, you’re working with fire, so it’s best to be safe rather than sorry.