Why Does Smoke Calm Bees?

Beekeepers have used smoke for centuries to calm honey bees while working in their hives. But what is the science behind this fascinating phenomenon, and how does smoke subdue bees?

When beekeepers puff smoke into a beehive, it masks the bees' sense of smell and inhibits their ability to detect and communicate through pheromones. This disruption in communication prevents the transfer of intruder alarm signals, creating a sense of calm as the hive temporarily goes into 'survival mode.' During this time, bees focus on protecting their resources and preparing to leave the hive, instead of attacking the perceived intruders, making beekeeping activities safer for humans.

How Bee Communication Works

Honeybees primarily communicate using their sense of smell, which plays a vital role in the overall functioning of a bee colony. Pheromones are chemical signals bees release to convey various messages within the hive, such as alarm signals. One of the most essential pheromones is the alarm pheromone, which bees release when they sense a threat to the colony. This pheromone alerts other bees to the potential danger, causing them to become defensive and prepare to attack any intruders.

On the other hand, foraging bees utilize a different type of communication called the waggle dance. Through a series of intricate movements, they relay information about the location, distance, and quality of food sources they have discovered. Although the waggle dance does not rely on pheromones, it still depends on the bees’ ability to sense and interpret the signals provided by their fellow bees.

Bee communication is not only limited to within the colony; it also extends to interactions with other species. Guard bees stationed at the entrance of a hive can identify returning foragers by their specific scent, allowing them to enter the colony safely. Additionally, some bees can detect the presence of certain flowers through olfactory cues in the environment, which ultimately helps them and their colony access valuable food sources. 

Smoke and Its Effects on Bees

Disruption of Pheromones

Smoke interferes with the bees’ sense of smell. Specifically, smoke affects bees in such a way that they can no longer detect low concentrations of pheromones, ultimately disrupting their intruder alarm signals and masking important olfactory cues in the hive (BBC Science Focus Magazine).

By inhibiting the bees’ ability to sense pheromones, smoke effectively hampers their communication, leading to a less aggressive and more docile state (Science ABC).

Triggering a Feeding Response

Besides disrupting pheromone communication, exposure to smoke also pushes honey bees into survival mode. When bees sense smoke, they instinctively believe that their hive may be in danger from fire. Consequently, they start to consume honey in preparation for the possibility of having to abandon their nest.

This feeding response also contributes to the bees’ calmer demeanor, as the bees focus on ingesting honey instead of defending the hive. Furthermore, the increased consumption of honey may cause bees to be less agile and less likely to sting (Entomology Today).

Beekeeping Practices and the Use of Smoke

The practice of using smoke to subdue bees can be traced back to ancient Egypt, and it remains a popular method today for safely inspecting and managing beehives.

Types of Smokers

A bee smoker is a device designed to generate smoke from various fuels, such as wood chips, dried leaves, or cotton. There are several types of smokers, including:

  • Traditional smokers: These come in various sizes and materials, with the most common being stainless steel or copper.
  • Battery-powered smokers: These are modern alternatives to traditional smokers, utilizing battery power to generate heat and produce smoke without the usual plant-based fuel.

Alternatives to Smoke

While smoke has long been the go-to method for calming honey bees, there are a few alternatives that beekeepers may explore:

  • Sugar water: Spraying a light mist of sugar water on the bees can distract them, as they’ll be busy cleaning off the sweet liquid.
  • Essential oils: Some beekeepers have found success using essential oils, such as lavender or lemongrass, to help calm bees without the need for smoke.

Smoke allows beekeepers to inspect their hives and manage the bees in a safe and controlled manner.

Impact on Bee Health and Behavior

While smoke is an essential tool for beekeepers to manage their hives safely, it’s crucial to consider the balance between calming the bees and causing unnecessary stress. Excessive or prolonged exposure to smoke may affect the colony’s health, such as impacting the queen’s fertility or hindering hive growth and productivity. Ensure you clean your smoker periodically so that embers don’t blow out of it and singe the hive. When you light the smoker, work the bellows until you have puffs of cool smoke to minimize its negative effects on the bees.


Smoke calms bees primarily because it interferes with their primary form of communication: smell. By masking the bees’ alarm pheromones, smoke reduces their aggressive behaviors and tendency to sting. Furthermore, the smoke instills a response in bees to consume honey, further reducing their inclination to sting.

It’s important to remember that the use of smoke as a calming agent is not without its potential drawbacks. Some beekeepers believe excessive use of smoke during hive inspections may negatively impact the bees’ overall health and well-being. Therefore, moderation and appropriate technique are crucial when employing a bee smoker.

In conclusion, while smoke effectively calms bees and allows for easier hive maintenance, beekeepers must use this tool responsibly to ensure the continued health and success of their honeybee colonies.

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