The bee smoker is one of the most important tools in the beekeeper’s box, that and the bee suit. But it is also one of the biggest pains in the neck, second only to the bee’s sting. On the plus side is the fact that the bee smoker keeps the bees relatively calm while the beekeeper does his/her work helping the ungrateful bees to survive and thrive. On the minus side is the difficulty many beekeepers have lighting them and keeping them lit throughout the inspection process, which can sometimes take some time depending on the size of the hive, the work to be done and the number of hives being worked on.
How Does the Smoker Work?
Popular opinion suggests that the smoke persuades the bees that there is a fire that is likely to consume their hive and that they need to consume as much of their honey as possible so that they will be ready to start a new hive quickly if they need to. This leaves them in a postprandial coma, which means that they don’t feel like going to too much trouble to defend the hive. Or that since their stomachs are too full to bend their abdomen enough to sting properly.
Another opinion is that the smoke blocks the bees from detecting the attack pheromone and they, therefore, do not get too worked up about the intrusion.
And yet another opinion is that the smoke leaves them a little dazed, similar to how we would feel if we had our head in a cloud of smoke.
Maybe scientists will sort it out and get back to us on it someday. Either way, it works and aren’t we glad that it does.
So, What Fuel Should I Use in my Smoker?
Every beekeeper has a favourite fuel for their smoker, but they are always on the lookout for one that is better. From what I see of other beekeepers, it appears that the current favourite is pine needles. The advantage of this fuel is that the needles produce a good cloud of smoke and they burn quite slowly and are not too difficult to light. Make sure that once lit you pack the needles in. This way they will burn for hours. The air can still blow through them, unlike some other fuels.
There is no shortage of smoker fuel for sale in all the usual places, but do you really have to buy smoker fuel? If you live in the city, maybe you do. But if you live in the country, and most beekeepers do, you will just need to go for a walk somewhere local and you will find lots of it.
|Good Fuel for Bee Smokers||Bad Fuel for Bee Smokers|
|Burlap/Hessian (Sack Cloth e.g. from coffee beans)||Manmade materials (any plastics) (Toxic)|
|Pine Needles (Only untreated)||Anything with chemicals (Toxic)|
|Wood Chips (Only untreated)||Petrol or Oil etc. (Toxic)|
|Cardboard, e.g. egg cartons or corrugated||Hay (Burns too fast and hot)|
|Pure cotton or linen|
|Dried Corn Cobs|
|Dried rotten wood|
You can experiment with the fuels listed in the Good column and see what works best for you, but keep away from anything listed in the column on the right. Make sure you have permission to gather the pine or dried wood etc. if it is not on your own land.
How to Start Your Bee Smoker
The trouble with smokers is that often the materials you use that will burn slowly enough to last will be difficult to light and the easy to light materials burn too quickly and too hot.
BTW, burning too hot is an issue. After all you don’t want to burn the wings off your bees, melt wax or heat treat your honey accidentally when blowing a bit of smoke into the hive. So be careful.
What many beekeepers do is first insert some bunched up paper or other easy to light fuel to get it started and then add the slow-burning fuel to it while pumping the bellows.
There is a far easier way to light it though it may not suit everyone. That is a blowtorch. This is a fast and convenient way to light it and also an easy way to relight it without having to rebuild your stack of fuel if it goes out.
Bee Smoker Safety
There are just a few things to point out to beginners. The experienced beekeepers will probably have made all of these mistakes already.
If you have poly hives, DO NOT place your smoker down on them. Your smoker will melt its way through the lid and any other part of it very quickly.
Once it is lit don’t touch the bare metal parts or you may burn yourself or damage anything that you touch it with.
If it is a good summer and there has not been any rain for some time there is a chance that a careless ember may start a fire. So, obviously take care not to leave your smoker unattended or to allow burning materials to get near anything flammable, e.g. hay, trees, rubbish, fields of crops or heather etc. Also, make sure to quench the contents of your smoker with water if you dump it out when finished with the smoker.
Make sure that your smoker is well quenched before you bring it into your vehicle to go home. A smoke-filled car makes for quite an unpleasant journey and can impair vision and in extreme cases cause accidents and affect health.
Types of Bee Smoker
There are still more than a few different types of beekeeping smokers around today varying from a bundle of burning straw to a modern electric one that heats up a liquid as required, though in general beekeepers worldwide seem to have settled on a single basic design, which comes in different sizes, similar to the one in the image above. A metal cylinder with a grate at the bottom to allow the bellows attached at the back to blow air into the fire to keep it lit and blow the smoke where the nozzle is pointed by the beekeeper.