Working with bees can often be a very painful and even dangerous endeavor.
It does not need to be. If you use the correct safety gear and you correctly use a smoker, your chances of being stung will be greatly reduced.
The key to using a smoker to calm your bees lies in understanding how the smoker works. Too little smoke and the bees will carry on as usual. Too much smoke and your bees will leave forever.
Different bees respond to the amount of smoke entering the hive differently. If you have a calm colony, you will need just a few puffs of smoke, if the hive is aggressive, you will need more smoke.
Why Do Bees Respond to Smoke?
Bees communicate and understand the world around them mainly by smell.
When they find a good smell, they head for it following their noses. When they find the source, they return to the hive and do a cute figure 8 dance releasing pheromones to communicate to the other workers that they have found a good source of nectar, and exactly where it is in relation to the hive.
When a honeybee stings, it releases pheromones via its sting to alert other workers that the person or animal they stung is a threat. This launches an attack as other bees are drawn to the smell and also sting the threat – you.
The smell of smoke, to bees, is a smell that alerts the bees to potentially extreme danger to the hive, colony, and queen. The smell of smoke is a threat that a wildfire is burning somewhere nearby.
The bees go into defensive mode and immediately set to work collecting as much honey as they can carry just in case they have to abandon the hive.
It is also believed that the smoke can restrict the production of the pheromones that alarm the bees and therefore they are restricted in their ability to communicate with the other bees in the hive.
If the guards do not sense danger, they will not alert the other workers that there is a threat to the hive.
When Should You Use a Smoker?
You should use a smoker anytime you are working with your bees, except when collecting honey. Use the smoker:
- if you are inspecting your hive,
- if you are removing a frame,
- if you are splitting a hive,
- or if you are moving your hive.
In this article we’ll explore exactly how to use a smoker safely and effectively.
How Does a Smoker Work?
At the entrance of the hive are guard bees. These bees alert the workers in the hive of danger by raising their stingers and releasing alarm pheromones that alert the workers of a possible threat, and that they should prepare to attack. The smoke is mostly to calm these guard bees so that they do not raise the alarm.
A smoker has a chamber in which you burn natural environmental materials like bark, leaves, or flowers. All these are smells that the bees can associate with a forest or bush fire.
The idea is not to blow a gusty fire into the hive. Just to let the material smolder. By squeezing the smoker, it releases a puff of smoke.
NOTE: Chemical smokers are now available on the market. I do not like these simply because I do not agree with exposing the bees to any kind of chemicals.
What Should You Burn in the Smoker?
Anything natural can be burnt, but you should note two things when you choose your fuel:
- You want to burn material that does not burn hot, so that you do not harm your bees.
- Choosing a calming fuel can reduce the risk of your bees taking flight permanently.
With regards to #1, anything that has been treated with chemicals or a fuel starter like gas or petrol should not be used.
With regards to #2, burn fuel that has a pleasant smell, that will not send the bees into a blind fury.
Some good materials to burn:
|☑ Dried lavender||☑ Dried citrus peels|
|☑ Dried daisies||☑ Pine needles|
|☑ Twigs||☑ Straw|
|☑ Brown paper||☑ Dried grass|
|☑ Hessian sacks||☑ Dried leaves|
|☑ Wood shavings||☑ Wood chips|
|☑ Dried zinnias||☑ Untreated burlap|
|☑ Wood pellets||☑ Sage|
|☑ Mint||☑ Basil|
|☑ Rosemary needles||☑ Dried sunflowers|
|☑ Dead flowers||☑ Untreated baling twine|
|☑ Eucalyptus leaves||☑ Cotton fuel pellets|
|☑ Untreated charcoal – only use if you have nothing else|
What You Should NOT Burn in Your Smoker
Just as there are good and bad things for people to be exposed to, there are things that are bad to expose your bees to.
Using anything synthetic or treated with chemicals or pesticides with result in the death of your colony.
Some plants are also toxic to bees. In nature, bees with avoid these plants. They react to the smell keeping them safe. These plants are as toxic if they are burned in your bee smoker.
You should NEVER use:
|❌ Lighter fluid||❌ Synthetic materials|
|❌ Gasoline||❌ Diesel|
|❌ Kerosene||❌ Ochrama lagopus (balsa tree)|
|❌ Solanum nigrum (berry, nastergal, black night)||❌ Aesculus californica (California buckeye)|
|❌ Cyrilla racemiflora (swamp cyrilla, titi, littleleaf titi leatherwood, he-huckleberry, red titi, white titi, black titi, palo Colorado)||❌ Cuscuta spp. (angel hair, devils hair, devil’s ringlet, hairweed, lady’s laces, goldthread, witch’s hair, strangleweed)|
|❌ Camellia thea (tea plant, tea tree camelia, assam tea)||❌ Astragalus spp. (milkvetch, locoweed, goat’s-thorn)|
|❌ Corynocarpus laevigata (New Zealand Laurel, Karaka nut)||❌ Gelsemium sempervirens (false jasmine, false jessamine)|
|❌ Kalmia latimolia (mountain laurel)||❌ Tilia spp. (linden, basswood, lime tree, lime bush)|
|❌ Veratrum californicum (California corn lily, white or California false hellebore)||❌ Rhododendrum spp. And hybrids (azaleas)|
|❌ Astragalus lentiginosus (spotted locoweed, freckled milkvetch)||❌ Solanum nigram (European black nightshade, black nightshade, blackberry nightshade)|
|❌ Angeica triqueta (garden angelica, wild celery, Norwegian angelica)||❌ Zygadenus cenesosus (death camas, meadow death camas)|
|❌ Sophora microphylla (Kowhai)||❌Asclepias spp. (milkweed, butterfly flower, silkweed, silky swallow-wort, Virginia silkweed)|
How to Make Your Own Smoker Fuel
Looking at the list above, there are some materials that are less appealing than others because they can leave a lasting odor.
Wood shavings, pellets, and burlap all leave a strong barbeque smell.
Using dried pine needles, sage, grapefruit leaves, or lavender will have a very sweet smell. To make your own fuel for your smoker:
- Collect the materials you are going to burn from your yard – lavender, sage, mint, basil, eucalyptus leaves, citrus peels, rosemary or pine needles, or dead flowers.
- Dry the selected items you want to burn thoroughly.
- Decide what blends you are going to use, setting out the ingredients.
- Use paper bags as pockets for your fuel, they ignite and burn easily to ignite the contents – you can make several packets at the same time, cut them into 4 inches to 6 inches strips.
- Place your ingredient on each square, use about a cup of ingredients per square.
- Fold the paper over the ingredients so that nothing will fall out – I fold mine over to look like envelopes or the bottom of a folded cardboard box.
- Now you are ready to burn.
Steps to Using a Smoker
- Gather together your fuel packs, smoker, and lighter or matches.
- Light a small amount of lit pine needles, hessian, paper, or sage – anything from the list – in the burning chamber of your smoker to get the fire started.
- Place the lit material in the burning chamber of your smoker.
- Once you have some flames, add your fuel packet on top of the fire – use the bellows to help the fire start and burn.
- When you have a slow-burning fire going (no big flames) close the lid of the burning chamber.
- As you approach the hive, let off a puff of smoke every second or third step you take.
- Do not overdo the smoking – if you use too much smoke, your bees will overreact.
- When you get to the hive, give 5 to 10 puffs around the hive – not directly at the sides of the hive, just enough to make the area smell of the smoke.
- Bellow some smoke into the hive entrance.
- Lift the lid on the hive, and give 2 small puffs into the hive – if you have aggressive or excitable bees, use more smoke.
- Wait 20 seconds before opening the hive completely.
- As you work, if you see the bees are acting concerned, give an additional small puff of smoke – remember not to over smoke the bees.
- When you are done inspecting your hive, close the hive properly.
- Put out the fire in the burning chamber safely.
- Remove all the remaining fuel from the chamber and ensure that no fire or smoke remains, i.e. put the fire out completely.
How to Make Your Own Smoker:
What Else You Can Do to Limit Bees’ Aggressiveness
There are other things that you should do to keep yourself safe when working with bees:
- ❌ Do not wear colorful clothing – especially not anything with a floral print
- ❌ Wear appropriate protective clothing
- ❌ White clothing is the only color that does not capture the attention of bees
- ❌ Do not approach your hive if you are in a rush – you should be able to take your time to prevent accidents or mistakes that could make the bees aggressive
- ❌ Do not wear strong scents – no perfume or spicy smells (shampoo included) that will make your bees think there are flowers on your skin.
- ❌ Do not open your hives too often – you should inspect only once or twice a month if there are no problems in the hive
- ❌ Switch off your cell phone – bees are aggravated by the sound as well as by the vibration of a cell phone
- ❌ Do not open your hive if you are intoxicated
- ❌ Do not open your hive in the rain
- ❌ Do not open your hive if it is cold
- ☑ Relax! If you stay calm, you will react appropriately
- ☑ Use your smoker!
When working with bees there are a number of ways to protect yourself from being stung.
Using a smoker to calm your bees affords you the luxury of taking your time to inspect your hive. Don’t linger too long when working in the hive; you want to reduce stress on the bees, and get them back to life as normal as quickly as possible.
Do not smoke honey frames, as the smell of your fuel will infiltrate the honey altering its taste.
Do not smoke the sides of the hive, smoke through the entrance at the base of the hive and then on top of the hive.
Use only the amount of smoke needed to keep the bees calm. You can always add a puff or two. Too much smoke will let the bees know the bush fire is serious and close to the hive. This could result in them swarming from the hive, and not returning.
Stay safe, and bee good!
Di-Anne Devenish Seebregts was raised in an environment where daily life consisted of hiking, environmental conservation, growing fruit and vegetables, and raising poultry for meat and eggs.
She combined her passion for the writing word with her love of the pride that comes with not relying on others. She raised three children (who are now adults) to value the environment, and understand the value of being self-sufficient.