Beekeeping is an exercise in continuing education, experimentation, and acceptance.

Why do Beekeepers Use Smoke on Bees?

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Photo of a smoker that is still smoking.

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The magical beehive smoker that appears to be a beekeeper’s constant companion. New and experienced beekeepers alike use it. We happen to have at least three of them. Is it a necessary tool? How does it work? And how do the honey bees respond to it?

How Does Smoke Affect the Bees?

When the guard bees at the front of the hive detect a possible intruder, they will release an alarm pheromone. When enough bees are emitting the alarm pheromones, it smells like banana oil. Before you get into a hive, a puff of smoke into the entrance covers the bees’ sense of smell so they don’t go into a state of alarm. The bees will continue their work as usual.

If a bee stings you, it will release the alarm pheromone on you and other bees may also sting the area. A puff of smoke to the stung area will mask the scent so the other bees don’t come after you. 

Smoke will also drive bees away. A beekeeper will use smoke to move the bees in a certain direction. When you open up the beehive, use a couple of puffs of smoke to drive the bees down into the hive. Or when you are closing the hive, use some smoke around the edges to clear them away to help you avoid squishing some bees when placing the cover back onto the hive.

If you are a new beekeeper, be careful that you don’t use too much smoke on the bees. When you’re going in for a hive inspection you just want to use a few puffs of smoke at the entrance of the hive. A small amount of smoke is all you need. Too much smoke could send the honey bees and the queen into a frenzy. You will learn how much smoke to use with a little experience.

Picture of beekeeper doing a hive inspection with a beehive smoker next to her.

Lighting the Smoker

There are a lot of different things you can use as fuel for your beehive smoker such as wood chips, wood shavings, pine cones, dead pine needles, dry grass, untreated burlap, rotten wood, and wood pellets to name a few. Be careful that you don’t use synthetic materials that might contain a chemical substance because it could hurt the bees. Every now and then, you may read about lint as a possible smoker fuel. Modern clothing, however, may contain synthetic fibers which could be toxic to the bee colony. Be sure to only use natural materials.

You should also bring a lighter or some matches and some extra fuel with you to the hives. If your luck is as bad as my dad’s, the smoker will not stay lit when you need it (note that there is no best fuel to magically make the smoker stay lit otherwise my dad would have used it a longgggg time ago). You usually have to wait a long time for the smoker to actually get going and stay lit.

We’ve also found–after years of trying–that dry straw is an amazing and almost surefire way to get the smoker lit! It burns fast and hot, and then you can use it to build up a longer lasting burn!

Do not add too much fuel or stuff the entire smoker. Once it is going consistently, a large smoker is supposed to last for 30 to 40 minutes. Sometimes we find it will go for much longer!

Additional Tips and Tricks for Using a Bee Smoker

Hot smoke is bad for everyone! You want to use cool smoke. You don’t want the smoker to become a blow torch and burn the bees and the trees. It is hard to fly when your wings have been singed. Smokey the Bear won’t be happy about us starting a forest fire.

Once the smoker is going, add a little green grass or green leaves to the top. This layer will help to catch and to cool any hot embers.

Also, never put an active smoker in the car. It could start a fire or scare the workers at the drive-through as my dad did because he was picking up lunch.

Use caution with the smoker. It is hot! You don’t want to touch a hot smoker and burn yourself. Pay attention to where you place it while you’re doing hive inspections. Those plastic or foam hives won’t be very forgiving if you decided to set a hot smoker on top.

Also, be aware that creosote buildup is something you will have to address from time to time. When you start to see some buildup in your smoker, you can use a torch to burn it off.

When you’re done doing your inspections, you can smoke the bee suit to make sure you don’t have any stowaways on you.

Put your hive tools into an open smoker and puff the smoker a couple of times to sterilize your tools. Do not touch your tools, though, or they will burn your hands! Hose them down to cool them before you touch them.

Empty your smoker and douse the contents with water. Do not leave an active smoker unattended.

Picture of a smoker sitting by a hive while the beekeepers are inspecting the hive.

No Smoke or Less Smoke Alternative (Sugar Syrup Spray)

As an alternative to the use of smoke on your bees, you can use sugar water. All you need is a robust spray bottle, sugar, and water (note that it’s easier if you use hot water to dissolve the sugar faster). Using a kitchen scale put the spray bottle on the scale and add equal parts water and sugar (you can also add something like Honey B Healthy® to the sugar water solution).

Lightly mist the bees with sugar water during your inspections. The sugar syrup will make the bees’ wings sticky so they can’t easily fly and buzz around you. It also gives them something to slurp up.

Smoke and Sugar Syrup are Great Tools for Beekeepers

The smoker is an essential piece of equipment used to calm bees. For a new beekeeper, it is always a good idea to light a smoker and have it ready even if you don’t intend to use it. If the conditions change and you need it, it’s better to have it than not. You can usually get a smoker from beekeeping supply stores or you can even order one online. Search your local marketplace for a lightly used one. If you plan to have several hives, then you will want the largest-sized smoker you can find.

And if you have discovered another surefire way of quickly and efficiently lighting your smoker, please share and we can help each other out!

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