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 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.)
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!
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!