If you have ever watched a video of beekeepers harvesting honey or checking the hive, you usually notice the smoker they bring along with other beekeeping tools. We know you have the same question as ours: Why are they using it? Is it even safe in the first place?
Bees emit an alarm pheromone (known as their line of communication through smell) when they sense danger, which causes them to attack. So, to avoid getting stung, beekeepers use the smoker as a form of protection. It keeps the bees calm and undisturbed during harvest or hive checkups by obstructing their sense of smell.
Bee lovers can finally relax knowing smokers won’t hurt our small diligent creatures. They are actually a must-have beekeeping tool and even recommended by experts. What they do is simply hamper the bee’s communication channel so you can do your job smoothly and go home with no sting related war wounds 🙂 We know you still have lots of questions in mind, such as if smokers will initiate aggressive behavior among bees or hurt them. That’s why we’re here! As a bonus, we included some of the sales-topping bee smokers in the online market.
Why Do Beekeepers Use Smoke?
Have you ever wondered how beekeepers manage to sneak those sweet, delightful sundrops of honey? Approaching the hive not only has the potential to cost the bees’ life (yes, they have a tendency to die after stinging a person) but also puts yourself in the target zone for potential bee strikes! In this situation beekeepers don’t just rely on luck, but a particular technique such as when using a smoker.
The hive of a honey bee consists of protein-rich larvae and syrupy honey – which are valuable treasures that bees heavily protect against several marauders. That’s why they have guard bees that work as entrance patrollers. If they detect a potential threat, they lift their stomach and open out their stinger to the air.
Depending on weather conditions, bee species, and similar factors, bees can get anxious and aggressive once they feel someone’s presence. If we use our voice and mouth as a form of communication, they have this so-called pheromone, which is a combination of 2-heptanone and isopentyl acetate. It is a smell they produce to alert other bees if something is wrong and they feel threatened – usually as a self-defense reaction to hive trespassers. Some claim the odor is similar to banana oil, while others relate it solely to a banana.
As its name suggests, a bee smoker (also called a smoke pot) is a device used to waft smoke to the hive. After its introduction, this piece of kit has become an essential item for most beekeepers. The role of this tool is to mask alarm pheromones through unharmful substances it releases.
Just imagine a scenario where you and your friends are talking in a very noisy environment. You cannot hear the exact words or none at all. That’s what happens with bees when you use smoke. Because their sense of smell is deterred, they cannot communicate well. Even those pheromones at a low level are not distinguished.
A handful of smoke puffs can calm the whole colony for some minutes. So, before they even have the chance to swarm and attack you, you’re probably done harvesting, feeding the bees, or doing maintenance. Without a smoker, beekeeping would certainly be a much trickier experience for many, no matter how thick or grandiose your bee suit is!
Besides avoiding stings, there is another reason why beekeepers consider smokers a valuable device. Once the smoke enters the hive and bees smell it, they will think there is a looming fire danger; thereby, prompting them to start preparing for hive departure. Their natural reaction is to eat as much honey as they can, then save it in their bodies to create a new hive elsewhere.
It is what we call their survival response. Not only it diverts the bee’s attention to beekeepers, but it makes their tummy satisfied as well. A stomach full of honey means less capability to sting a predator since they cannot incline their body due to a puffy belly. We usually feel sluggish when we overeat, which also happens to bees. It makes them too tired and slow to attack.
Does Smoke Hurt Bees?
Smokers have been around for decades already (more than 2,500 years ago), and so far, there are no reports of undesirable effects on the health of bees. The distraction it causes is only momentary; hence, it won’t hurt them neither put their health in danger. As soon as the smoke disperses, bees can regain their pheromone sensitivity within 10 minutes. Though in some cases, it could last for up to 20 minutes.
The smoke only becomes harmful if it is used in an untimely manner. It may sound too simple, but a smoker requires careful application. You have to equip yourself with precise knowledge to avoid hurting yourself and the entire bee colony.
Here, we will walk you through some common mistakes when using smoke.
- Beekeepers, especially those who are new to this role, open the beehive immediately after smoking. Some even blow the smoke to let it go inside. You have to wait at least a minute or so before opening it. Observe the response of the bees, making sure they are not acting in an unpredictable manner. To reduce waiting time, why not fill the frame feeders (or some other stuff you can do for a few minutes) while looking out how they behave? This way, you can also plan to smoke the next hive before opening the first one.
- Over-smoking the hive will put bees into panic mode, which could eventually cause stress. So, never use too much smoke at one go and at recurrent times. Always ensure to puff the smoke frugally – possibly a single waft on the top and another at the entrance.
- The wings of bees are very sensitive to heat, so diffusing hot smoke can totally render them down. There are so many modern smokers available with which you can fuel with fabrics or other natural materials. They emit more than enough smoke for the typical beekeeper, so you no longer need to guess how much smoke you need.
Does Smoke Make Bees Aggressive?
Another reason why some beekeepers are still hesitant to use smoke is the concern of making bees aggressive. It is actually far from reality, so there’s nothing to be alarmed about. What triggers their aggressive behavior when smoking the hive is when you use too much smoke. Similarly, too little smoke can make bees frantic as well, so moderation is key.
Ensure to understand the proper use of a smoker before using it to avoid shocking or melting your hardworking little creatures. It is also your obligation as a beekeeper to know their temperament and behavior, so you’ll have an easy time dealing with them. If they consistently show aggression, then it is always good to have this equipment at hand.
New beekeepers can be susceptible to mess around, perhaps because of the fear of getting raw stings. Being sloppy means causing more aggression among bees. Some have a worse experience of crushing bees whilst trying to replace or remove frames. It is common during your first few months, but eventually, you will get the hang of it. It’s the same with smoking, your experience will guide you over time, helping you moderate your smoke use.
Is A Bee Smoker Necessary?
Here’s a surprising truth:
According to this 2018 report, farm animals and insects are the sole reason why over 200,000 residents go to emergency departments in the US. Around 65 deaths were registered, mainly because of stings from wasps, bees, and hornets. However, it is only people with severe allergic reactions to these stings that should be worried. For most people, it is the discomfort of bee stings that makes them turn to things such as smokers!
You have the final say whether or not to add this item to your beekeeping arsenal. But considering what it does to simplify your work as a beekeeper with utmost ease, we cannot deny that a smoker is indeed a piece of necessary equipment.
It has proven to be the simplest, most effective, and best technique, providing, of course, you use it with care and caution. Avoid harming or crushing bees, and everything will turn out good. Besides easing activity in the hive, the smoker can also be used as a treatment procedure to get rid of fungal infections, parasites, and similar issues.
Regular hive inspections are no doubt crucial to ensure the colony’s health is in tiptop shape. Beekeepers need to check the hive more frequently in peak season, preferably at least once a week. Many people find using smoke makes these regular inspections simpler and less time-consuming.
However, bear in mind that you don’t necessarily need to use smoke whenever you work with bees. Not only does it make them stressed and agitated, but it also initiates them to escape the hive due to a false fire alarm. It additionally impacts their productivity since it takes them a couple of minutes or even hours before finally recovering from the smoke. If you happen to use a smoker often, let’s say every few days week, then this is absolutely a big deal.
When is it preferable to use smoke?
- When planning to do hive splits or a complete hive inspection. The use of smoke would make it a lot easier for you to move frames from one box to another, with bees calmly inside.
- The use of newspaper to combine, let’s say, two colonies might be good. But smoking is a much better alternative.
- If you need to add a new queen, the tool could help mask her pheromone. It gradually introduces her scent to the bees as soon as the smoke disperses.
- Smoke masks the smell of hives, which is specifically helpful during nectar drought. That means bees are less likely to deal with fury predators and thieves, such as yellow jackets.
- When you need to remove frames during honey extraction, smoking bees might be helpful too. Some beekeepers, however, opt not to smoke frames covered with honey because, according to them, it can impact the taste of that honey.
- If you live in an urban area with bordering homes, smokers prevent your bees from disturbing your neighbor, especially those intimidated by their presence.
When is it less ideal to use smoke?
- During nectar flow, bees are typically absorbed in doing their assigned roles, so there might be no reason to rile them up with a cloud of smoke. You can take a quick glimpse to know their status.
- Swift inspections of the colony throughout early spring are also possible without the help of smoke. During this time, bees do not tend to desert their typical posts. They really are that busy!
Some hobbyists would rather avoid using smoke due to a few reasons, like having a hypoallergic reaction. The pungent smell it discharges is a turnoff, too. Others believe it could negatively affect the honey’s quality taste, though there has been no research to back this up.
Sure, you have the option not to incorporate a smoker into your beehive routine checkup and maintenance without dealing with stings. It can be complicated, though. You have got to familiarize yourself with when is the best time to enter the hive. So far, only experienced beekeepers can tackle this effortlessly.
The ideal time to visit a beehive is between the middle of the morning and the middle of the afternoon (11 am to 4 pm) when the weather is sunlit, warm, and tranquil. The temperature should be 15° C or more. During this period of hours, no bees are guarding the hive. They are likely busy searching for pollen.
You should wear newly washed light-colored protective gear – no traces of alarm pheromones from your past inspections and no wearing of products that produce intense smell such as perfume. Also, wear leather beekeeping gloves that are light in color and snug when fitted.
Do not attempt to block the entrance. Instead, work from the side or back of the hive. Move in a slow, cautious, and calm manner as you do your job. When you tick off one bee, the rest will immediately follow. Most importantly, do not crush bees so that they won’t come after you and leave painful bites.
We have another whole article on this site about how to calm down bees without a smoker, if you are interested.
How Does A Bee Smoker Work?
Moses Quinby, an American inventor during the late 19th century, designed the original modern bee smoker. It features a bellow connected to a tin burner that distributes smoke equally. But as modern technologies evolve, so have smokers. They now come with a minimalist design packed with cutting-edge features.
They have three crucial components:
- Bellows – pumps fresh air and snuffs out smoke; includes one covering and two plates situated at the bottom back area
- Chamber – holds fiery fuel material; generally comes in a cylindrical shape akin to the teapot and designed using a variety of materials like copper and galvanized steel
- Nozzle – directs the smoke towards an accurate direction; positioned above so you can conveniently fill the chamber with enough quantity of fuel
As we have specified earlier, the primary role of this tool is to keep bees calm so you can free up yourself from colony attacks. And since stinging causes bees to die, you are also protecting their lives. Another benefit of smoke is the ability to obscure human scent; hence, making bees non-aggressive as you come near the hive.
The smoker’s working process is pretty simple. You first need to take a starter, light it, and toss it in the attached can. Bellows send out oxygen to the burning starter, which you need to pump. Smoke will then steadily produce and emit from the nozzle. The inflammation materials, such as wood shavings, allow you to maintain the required level of smoke until you require it.
Out of all the materials available, stainless steel is a mainstream favorite, owing to its fireproof and durable design. Other features you should be looking for in a smoker are heat shield, aeration grate, and hook or mount for quick storage and access.
How to Use A Bee Smoker
Before everything else, be sure to prepare your bee smoker fuel. Don’t worry, as they are easy to attain and may not require you to spend extra bucks. Natural and dried materials are the best smoker fuel. Besides being trouble-free to start a fire, they emit long-lasting smoke as well.
You have bark or wood chips, cardboard egg trays, dry grass, wood shavings, newspaper or pieces of scratch paper, dried leaves, cotton waste, burlap, and pine needles as a selection. The latter is recommended because of the hazy, rich fire it creates. Avoid using plastics, treated products, synthetic materials, and plants as kindling. Any flammable liquid is a bad idea, too, whether gasoline, lighter fluid, or kerosene. They will harm or (worse) kill your innocent bees!
In addition to a bee smoker fuel, you should also prepare your bee smoker, a match or something you can use to put out a fire, and a piece of paper or anything similar to help start the fire.
Now, here’s the step-by-step guide on how to use your bee smoker.
Step 1: Light the bee smoker
First, flip the lid open and put your chosen combustible starter item inside the fire chamber base. Place only a small amount. Close the lid immediately after igniting a fire. It will enable you to achieve that heavy smoke. Then, pump the bellows to drive the air out.
Step 2: Continue to add kindling
As long as you have a starter material that goes well to fire, the subsequent steps would be easy as pie. Just keep on adding more kindling while pressing the bellows steadily to give more oxygen and sustain the flame. But do not overdo it!
As tempting as it is, going beyond the required smoke will kill the flares and harm your bees or agitate them further. You should know how to balance between letting the fire burn fast and confining it.
Step 3: Smoke your bees safely
Now that your smoker has a puffing white, cool smoke, it’s time to give some subtle wafts on the brink of the hive door. Three or four puffs might be enough. The smoke usually filters through the beehive within a minute or so, and you should wait for it before doing your necessary work.
Some colonies are nonviolent, which include Saskatraz, Italian, and Russian bees. Hence, they may only need a small amount of smoke to help you get going.
Step 4: Ready to approach the hive
After pumping out some smoke at the entrance, wait for no less than 20 minutes before opening the hive. When you notice the bees are starting to feel relaxed and are very absorbed in what they are doing, approach the apiary cautiously. Sneak to the side or from behind. You can add one or two further pumps to prevent the insects from fleeing and preserving your stingless skin 🙂
Whenever they feel aggravated, irritated, or impulsive, set the smoke free so that they have more things to think about than stinging you! Just be careful of the extreme heat the smoker produces, as it can burn you and these small little bees. Maintain at least 8 to 10 inches distance to avoid harming them.
Step 5: Put out the smoker
Be sure to snuff out smoldering embers and pour out any fuel residual. Place the bee smoker on the side, then open it. You can pour some water on it after removing the ashes from the chamber. Of course, don’t forget to clean the equipment after every use. Store in a dry place.
Best Way to Smoke Bees
Here, we want to share some proven tips to make your bee smoking experience a pleasant one.
- Pair up the smoker with a good quality bee suit and protective gear.
- Work on the hive during good weather conditions.
- Move slow, quiet, and steady as you enter the hive. Always remain calm.
- Bees do not like keeping themselves exposed, so as much as possible, open only the hive if you need to check the queen bee or colony or there’s harvesting to do.
- Fume the area where bees customarily enter the hive.
- Do not pack in the burning fuel too much because it has the tendency to block the airflow from the bellows. As a result, you would have a tricky time releasing smoke retentively and operating the tool efficiently.
- If you have more than three hives to take care of, might as well invest in a jumbo smoker. You surely don’t want to experience the nuisance of having your smoker run out of fuel in the middle of the your checks, right?
Smoking Bees Without A Smoker
There are other alternative methods to smoking bees, such as using N2 or CO2. We do not recommend either one, though, as they can hurt bees. Not to mention they require an expert application. Just one mistake can put all your beekeeping efforts at stake.
For a safer and natural substitute, you can use a sugar water spray. While not as effective as the smoker, it could aid you a decent amount. It works by giving bees a misleading idea that it is raining outside, and thus, removing their attention from you. Like smoke, this method has no long-term detrimental effect on the beehive.
Otherwise, you can try essential oils with two or more blends of peppermint oil, lemongrass, thyme, tea tree, or spearmint. Most hobbyists include this mixture in the smoker for improved effectiveness. As a bonus, they have antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial compounds that can be valuable to your hive. But the downside, spraying with essential oils or sugar water might only be applicable during warm weather.
Hobbyists also use manipulation cloth as a replacement for smoke. It refers to any fabric material to keep the box dim by covering it. The idea here is to let bees do their own thing and ignore you. You can purchase one, though it seems a bit costly. You can instead use old light material, along with a mild misting of water.
Where to Get A Bee Smoker
Several online stores, such as Amazon, offer an extensive array of beekeeping smokers. They can cost you as low as $20. They all have a similar working mechanism. The only difference between (relatively) high-priced and cheap smokers is the extra features attached, and perhaps, size capacity.
Being compact with a heat shield, perforated firebase, and mounting hook, the VIVO Bee Hive Smoker lands as our top pick. Not to mention affordable and made of stainless steel. It is particularly suited to novices thanks to its ease of use. It accommodates any fuel type and holds enough smoke to work on numerous hives.
If you’re looking for a bigger-sized smoker, perhaps the Foxhound Pro Smoker is your perfect option. It is 12-inch and also designed using heavy stainless steel. As for extras, you have a burn shield, a tall heat chamber, added thick airflow plate, and other heavyweight features.
Whether to use a bee smoker or not is still a controversial topic these days. There are negative assertions, yes, claiming that it is not as beneficial as it proposes and that you’ll end up spending extra cash on something that could damage your bees. However, the majority say a smoker is worth considering. It will surely help you calm the bees and gain enough confidence to perform inspections, feeding, and maintenance every time without the threat of a sting. You don’t just make your work faster and more efficient but also save the lives of bees from stinging.