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Sarah Plonski

Beekeeping Basics

Beekeeping 101: The Beekeeper’s Smoker


The smoker is an essential part of a beekeeper’s tool kit. Even if you have very gentle bees and seldom need to use the smoker, it’s a good idea to have one lit and ready every time you open a hive. When you do realize you need one, you really don’t want to have to stop everything to light it! Smokers can be a bit tricky to use though. Knowing how much smoke is enough (and how much is too much) can be stressful for many new beekeepers, and smokers have a way of going out on you at the most inconvenient times. This post will tell you what you need to know to master your smoker in no time.


But first, what does the smoke actually do?

Smoking your bees does two things. Firstly, the smoke masks the pheromones that bees use to communicate with one another. One pheromone in particular “Alarm Pheromone” is of particular importance. A honey bee will emit alarm pheromone when she is startled or injured. When you squish a bee or get stung, you set off a tiny alarm pheromone bomb. Any bees in the area that smell that pheromone will become more aggressive, and will emit their own alarm pheromone. Within a few minutes, they can organize the whole colony against you. Having smoke handy to mask the scent ensures that even if you kill a bee or two, you won’t have an army of cranky bees coming after you.

Secondly, it simulates a forest fire, activating a kind of bee “fire drill”. The honeybee fire safety protocol is to go into the hive and start eating up lots of honey. With full bellies, they will be well prepared to flee their burning home and start building new comb elsewhere, should the need arise. This distracts the bees, and works to the beekeeper’s advantage because, just like you and me, honey bees tend to be much less feisty after a big meal.

The Smoker

The smoker itself is rather simple in design. Early styles were just cans with some holes punched in them, which were swung around to distribute the smoke, but the design has evolved quite a bit over the decades. Now the can has a bellows attached and a spout on top so you can aim the smoke. (Check out this awesome article on the history of smokers)

The fundamentals of how the smoker works are pretty straightforward: You start a fire in the can (I’m sure there’s a “proper” term for that part of the smoker, but I don’t know it), you pump the bellows to force oxygen through the fire, which pumps smoke out of the spout. The main thing that you want to be aware of is how the air enters the can from the bellows. If you pack your kindling material down too far into this space, it can hamper airflow, and make it difficult to keep your smoker burning.

Some people have those fancy round top smokers. They say they work better. They don’t usually explain how, it’s just vaguely implied that they are better, which justifies the greater expense. I can’t speak to that – I imagine it’s sort of like a “hemi” engine in a car. It probably ekes out a bit of extra performance, but unless you’re obsessive about performance, you may not notice the difference. That being said, they do look really cool, and my birthday is coming up… (in February, but I mean, technically, still coming up.)


The fuel

Over the years I have really covered the spectrum of smoker usage – from shoving in whatever sticks or leaves from the ground looked dry enough and hoping it would light, to purchasing cedar chips from the pet store and making little “starters” out of cardboard. Regardless of what you intend to use, there are a few basics that will help you get the most out of your fuel.

I like to categorize smoker fuel into three basic groups, “starters” “kindling” and “fuel”. I know this is a bit technical for what amounts to starting a fire in a can, but bear with me.

A starter is something that will light easily, and stay lit long enough for the kindling to catch. Possible options include a loosely balled sheet of newspaper, a rolled up strip of cardboard, or, a pinecone. The idea here is you light your starter and toss it into the can, so you can get to work laying kindling on top. Whatever you choose, you want to make sure it has enough air pockets that the fire doesn’t get smothered, each of my examples have built in air pockets between layers of flammable material. If you don’t have something that would make a handy starter, you can just skip it and light the kindling directly, but it can be a bit trickier to get the kindling thoroughly lit without a starter.


Kindling is the next step, you want small, thin pieces that light easily. Pine needles have a cult following. I tend to use wood shavings because my husband is a wood worker. Pet store hamster bedding also works great, if you don’t mind paying for it. Dried shredded leaves or straw can also work. Some bee suppliers even sell what basically amounts to laundry lint for the purpose. I tried it once and it did light well, but it burnt quicker than lightning and I had a hard time getting anything else to catch. (I would caution you not to use your won laundry lint – synthetic fibers from your clothes will melt rather the burn, causing nasty fumes and gunking up your smoker!) 


Finally, your “fuel” can be just more kindling, or if you have slightly larger pieces – such as small twigs or wood chips, you can use them here. These pieces will take longer to catch, and can take a little more effort to get an even burn, but they will also burn longer, which can help keep your smoker from going out mid-inspection. Keep in mind that when I say “larger” I mean relative to pine needles and wood shavings. I’m still talking about what most people would consider to be very small particles. Tiny twigs and chips of wood. Not big old sticks!


Other things you’ll need

Obviously, you need something to start a fire. This can be matches, a lighter, or if you’re hardcore, you can sit out there rubbing two sticks together. Personally, I prefer those long grill lighters. The extra length makes it possible to light the fire inside the smoker, where wind won’t snuff it out right away.

You’ll also want your hive tool handy. It’s the perfect thing for packing kindling down into the smoker.


Lighting your smoker

The basic principle is to start a small fire at the bottom of the smoker, and pile things on top of it to increase the flame. Because heat rises, if we pack the smoke first and light the top, the flame will burn for a minute and then go out, unable to ignite the fuel beneath it.

Start with your smoker empty. If you have a grill lighter, place your “Starter” or a small amount of kindling inside the can and then ignite it, or if you are using a normal lighter or matches, light it first and when it is burning pretty well, drop it in carefully (sometimes dropping it too fast will put out the fire!).

Pump the bellows a few times to get the fire going well and then add a small amount of kindling. Use your hive tool to pack it down, but be careful not to pack it too hard and snuff out the fire.

Continue pumping the bellows and packing in more kindling until you have a pretty good little fire going, then go ahead and start adding in larger pieces if you have them, or else just keep on packing in kindling.

The secret is in how much you pack the fuel down – pack it too much and the fire will smother, pack it too little and it will burn too fast and go out. Experience is really the only way to know what the right “pack” is, but most newbies tend to not pack the fuel tightly enough. If your smoker goes out, open it up – if there is no fuel left your probably didn’t pack it enough (or you didn’t add enough fuel) If there is still fuel that wasn’t burnt, you either packed it too much, or didn’t get it burning well to begin with.

Now that your smoker is burning well, it should last a good long time on it’s own. The occasional puff on the bellows helps ensure it keeps burning,  and of course, don’t forget to check from time to time to make sure that there’s enough fuel left!


Using Your Smoker

The rule of thumb when using your smoker is less is more. The smoke does keep you from getting stung but it also disturbs the bees, and can contaminate your honey stores or wax if used too liberally. I use two or three puffs of the bellows with the spout of the smoker near the front entrance(s) of the hive a few minutes before I open it for an inspection. It takes about ten minutes to work its magic, but it can bee difficult to wait that long!

I will use one or two more puffs when I open the hive or move down two another box – or if the bees seem to be getting really cranky.

Never hold the spout of the smoker less than 6 inches from the bees – the smoke can be hot, and the direct blast is really overkill. Let the plume of smoke disperse and waft into the hive on its own. Remember, less is more.

The smoker can get very hot! Most smokers have wire protective cages around the main can, but it can be tricky to hold them this way because if your finger slips through you’ll get burnt. I recommend only holding your smoker by the bellows or by the little hook in the front. Never pick up your smoker by the handle on the lid, or by the can itself. Also, be aware that the bottom can get very hot as well. Do not set your smoker on top of or next to anything prone to scorching or melting!


Smoke alternatives

I have terrible allergies, and at certain times of the year, my nose gets so sensitive that even a little bit of smoke has me tearing up and sneezing and coughing and generally causing a scene. So I’ve been looking into other options. While I wouldn’t say that either of these is a perfect replacement for a smoker, they can be very useful, and have helped reduce my reliance on the smoker.

“Beekeeper’s liquid smoke” is sometimes sold by beekeeping suppliers, but it’s not any different from the stuff you can get a the grocery store (it’s great for marinades, too!) It is basically wood smoke particles trapped in a liquid. Most beekeepers seem to use it by diluting it into a spray bottle and spraying it into the hive.  I don’t know of any scientific studies to back this up, but my gut tells me that this is a bad idea. If excess smoke can affect the flavor of honey, spraying liquid smoke inside a hive could completely ruin it, and moreover, I have to imagine it takes much longer for liquid smoke to dissipate from a hive – meaning that the bees will be affected much longer than is necessary.

Instead, I splash a little liquid smoke on my hands before I begin an inspection. The scent doesn’t linger too long inside the hive, and I can just wash my hands when I’m done. This won’t waft throughout the hive and calm the bees the way normal smoke does, so it’s not as useful if you’re in a situation where the bees are going to be really upset – such as if it’s raining or you’re being clumsy. For regular inspections, though, it’s quick and convenient and it’s plenty to keep the bees from jumping at your hands.

Sugar Spray is my go-to for swarm catching: soak the bees down with a 2-1 water/sugar spray and then shake them into a box while they are too busy licking it off each other to fly away or try to sting me.  I’ve heard a few beekeepers recommend using it to calm bees in place of smoke – particularly if bees are flying around and getting up in your face. A little hit of sugar water will distract them in a way the Smoke never could. It does have some disadvantages. Getting sugar on the open brood is really bad for them, and you probably don’t want to be adding too much moisture inside your hives. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend spraying onto frames. Having sugar spray around to take care of feisty bees flying around might be a great idea however. I’m definitely going to give it a try!

So that about wraps up the smoker conversation for now. It’s important to remember that there are many different methods for lighting and using smokers, and different techniques work better for different people/situations. If you have any great tips to add or further questions, please let us know in the comments!

Bee Art

Beekeeping Photo Series 1

I promise I’m hard at work putting together some really awesome, informative posts, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some beekeeping-related photographs I made for a class. The were all shot with an actual film camera. Hard to fathom, I know. Thanks so much to the awesome beekeepers who put up with me taking pictures of them for so long!

Beekeeping Basics

Getting Started With Beekeeping – What Do You Need?



So you read my last post about what you should consider before you get bees, and you’re more excited than ever to start. That’s great! There are just a few things you’ll need to do before your bees arrive. First, you’ll need to decide how you’re going to get your bees, then you’ll need to get the essential equipment you’ll need, and then you’ll need to get your hive. Continue Reading…


How To Save The Bees

With the media these days full of scary stories about bees dying and what it will mean for our food production, everyone is in a “save the bees” frenzy, but not many people have any idea what concrete action they can take to help out. (In last week’s post, I did my best to clarify some misinformation that’s been circulating about bee decline. If this is a topic that interests you, it’s definitely worth a read.)

So, you want to save the bees? Here are five things you can do:


  1. Stop Killing The Bees


So, you’re probably not actively killing bees, but some things you do might be inadvertently killing them. Even if you don’t plan on doing anything else for the bees, you can make a huge difference by changing your grocery shopping habits and gardening organically.

If you read the news, you’ve probably heard about neonicotinoids and how they are bad for bees. You might be under the impression that neonics and other scary chemicals are mostly the domain of industrial farmers. This isn’t the case at all. Neonicotinoids are found in lots of pesticides meant for home use (like, the Advantage flea and tick stuff you might smear on your dog). Acre for acre, more pesticides and herbicides are used at homes than on farms. This makes sense when you think about it – farmers don’t use more chemicals than they need to because it cuts into profits. Joe Schmoe, on the other hand finds a dandelion in his lawn, buys a bottle of Roundup and dumps it in his yard without ever reading the label.  


Don’t be Joe Schmoe.  Most residential purposes don’t warrant using chemicals at all. For most any garden disaster, there’s a fantastic organic option that is as effective or more so than it’s chemical counterparts. If you don’t believe me, just ask Mike McGrath of You Bet Your Garden!

Even if you’re a die-hard organic gardener, if you’re eating conventional produce, you’re still supporting the use of toxic chemicals that harm bees. Every time you buy conventional food instead of organic, you’re also missing an opportunity to help bees (and people) by supporting more sustainable methods of food production. Think of every organic food purchase you make as a vote for a long-term shift to a healthier agriculture system.

Don’t just go to Whole Foods, though, everything there is crazy expensive, and I think that’s why most people don’t think they can afford to eat organically. A better way to shop is by finding a farmer’s market, CSA (Community supported agriculture), or food co-op near you. As long as you stick to seasonal foods and avoid packaged snack items, it won’t cost you an arm and a leg, and it will taste way better than conventional fare. The USDA Organic label makes it easy to identify good options, but some smaller food producers can’t afford the certification, even if they use organic methods. Shopping locally gives you the opportunity to learn about where your food is coming from and support small sustainable farms!

It might seem like I went on a bit of a tangent. Here I am writing about how to save the bees and then off I go on a rant about sustainable agriculture. However, they are two sides of the same coin. Our industrial agriculture system is causing a lot of damage to the environment (and to our health!) and if we aren’t working to improve it, we can yell “save the bees” till our faces turn blue and nothing is going to change.

That being said, If you aren’t spraying nasty stuff all over your house and are doing what you can to support sustainable agriculture, there are still a few other (arguably more fun) things you can do to help the bees!


  1. Feed The Bees


Like all living things, bees need food to survive. Bees eat pollen and nectar from flowers, so making sure that there are enough flowers available for bees throughout the season can do a lot to help support native bees, honey bees, and other pollinator species. Different species of bees prefer different types of flowers, and some species are “specialists” that only forage from a specific species of plant.  

Choosing the right plants to feed the bees in your area is important, as is selecting plants that will grow well where you intend to plant them. So take your time and do a little research before you run out and buy plants or seeds! I always recommend that people plant native plants as much as possible – they tend to grow better without the use of fertilizers or other chemicals, and they provide much more support to local wildlife than imported varieties.

The Pollinator Partnership offers a great series of planting guides searchable by area code, you can check it out here. Your state extension program is another fantastic resource for suggestions of plants to grow, as well as advice on how to grow them.

If you’re the book-loving type, you can pick up a copy of the Xerces Society’s “100 Plants to Feed the Bees.

Finally, here is a really great PDF that has a lot of info about attracting pollinators to you garden.


Which brings us to:


  1. Provide Habitat for Bees (and other pollinators!)

One of the biggest threats to native pollinators is habitat loss. Different species of bee have different nesting habits, so it’s worth doing a little research to figure out what works best for your “target bee demographic”. In the fabulous book “Bringing Nature Home Douglas Tallamy recommends leaving at least the edges of your proprty in a “natural state” by growing native plants and resisting the urge to clean away brush and debris.

Many solitary bees survive the winter by hibernating under leaves and other debris. So simply not tidying up your garden at the end of the year can provide shelter for a lot of beneficial insects, plus it’s a great excuse to skip all the extra work!

When planting, you may also wish to leave some ground clear for ground dwelling bees – these species dig special burrows in the ground, called “galleries”, in which they lay their eggs. With most species, the adult bees will die off by the fall. The eggs will hatch and pupate underground, then emerge the following Spring to begin the cycle again. Many ground bees tend to prefer sunny, dry patches of bare or lightly mulched soil.

Another way to create homes for bees is by setting up a “bee hotel”.  They are sometimes also called insect hotels. There are many different types of bee hotels that cater to different species of bee (and some other beneficial insects) Many of them use paper tubes, cut reeds, or holes drilled into blocks of wood for solitary bees to lay eggs in. Other types provide straw or other nesting materials. Each style will be attractive to different types of insects, so you can either carefully research the type of bees you want to help, or simply try a variety and see who shows up.

If you like the bee hotel idea, Here is a fantastic guide to building and managing bee hotels.


  1. Support Groups Trying to Save Bees!


I am a huge believer that just one person can make a huge difference in the world, but even I can’t deny that when people get organized, they can do even more! There are some really fantastic groups out there working to help bees (as well as some sort of lame ones that don’t do much at all, so be careful!). Two of my personal favorites are:

The Xerces Society 


The Pollinator Partnership


  1. Spread the Word About How to Help Bees!


You are now armed with a lot of knowledge that you can use to help the bees, but imagine how much more you could do if there were two of you! Well, I haven’t figured out cloning just yet, but by passing your knowledge on to someone else, you can basically double the impact you have. If they then educate one more person and so on and so forth, we can change the world in no time flat. So get out there and tell everyone what they can do to save the bees!


It’s All Over The News: Bees Are Dying!

I’ve been spending more time than usual perusing online articles about bees, and something rather horrifying has come to my attention. No, it’s not all the articles about colony collapse disorder, massive bee die-offs and how “without the honey bee we’ll all die horribly”. Well, it is that, sort of, but  I’m already familiar with those issues.

What I find really frightening is the articles themselves, how they take an extremely complex situation and try to paint it in black and white. They do this so people will click on the links and pay them money. They make up crazy headlines and they oversimplify the issues so that it doesn’t “go over their reader’s heads”. They think people are too stupid for accurate information. Continue Reading…

Beekeeping Basics

The Best Beekeeping Books

If you’ve been paying attention so far, you might have noticed that I’m a total nerd (if not, don’t worry, you’ll catch on soon.) One of the places my nerd flag shines the brightest is when I get talking about bee books. See, I love books, and when it comes to bees and beekeeping there are just so many fantastic books out there. All of them chock full of information just waiting to be absorbed! Continue Reading…