Smoke or no smoke? Good question.
It surprises me that there are beekeepers who have completely forsworn smokers. Such quixotic folks ply their trade without smoke, believing (perhaps correctly) that a bee smoker invalidates the organic status of their honey.
Chemicals from a smoker are potentially hazardous. Smoke from my father’s corncob pipe proved carcinogenic, at least after 66 years of piping caught up to him and he, at age 80, developed a tiny knob of cancer under his tongue. It was spotted early and removed before causing serious damage. He used his pipe (and a conventional smoker made by Dadant) for decades. Smoke became mixed with the food we ate at the family table, from my father’s pipe, not a barbeque. Honey harvested with a bee smoker probably wasn’t good for us, but it’s not likely to have been a major health hazard – at least based on the anecdotal evidence of the health and longevity of most of my immediate family.
Still, some beekeepers are philosophically opposed to using a smoker. If you are considering working your bees without one, history is against you. Rather early, humans learned to carry smoky torches up trees when they liberated honeycombs from lofty wild hives. It seems rather obvious that bees evolved to peacefully turn over their honey to humans upon smelling smoke. What else would explain their docile smoke reflex?
But some modern beekeepers have decided that they should work bees without smoke. That’s nice. But if you are not an accomplished, experienced beekeeper, I’d advise against it. A tiny amount of smoke, judiciously applied to the entrance before the hive is opened and along the top bars once or twice during your bee work is all it usually takes to calm the bees and allow a few minutes of personal bee immersion. Without smoke, the entire hive can quickly become unmanageable, stinging the beekeeper severely and possibly taking down neighbours in the process. I was once called to a house where the resident beekeeper had opened his hive without smoke, the bees erupted, and the beekeeper ran. I was asked to replace frames taken out by the fleeing beekeeper. He watched through his kitchen window.
If you’ve been working bees for a while, you may have become a smokerless beekeeper. If so, you should have learned how to pick the right weather to lift the lid, how to move smoothly amid the bees, and how to replace the frames and lid when the bees become seriously defensive, as is their custom.
These skills are not learnt the first time a hive is opened, yet I’ve known bee-gurus who insist that their new, inexperienced disciples must never own a smoker. As in most things in life, balance is good. So is safety. For some gurus, this isn’t an option. It’s all or nothing. No smoke, they tell me, is the natural way to keep bees. Period. I’d rather see new beekeepers taught to use caution and smoke very, very gently than to totally eschew the calming effect of judicious cool smoke.
I mentioned the inorganic nature of smoked honey. This is probably a valid concern. I don’t know how to address it, except to ask whether some of the beekeepers who imagine themselves as ‘working with nature’ could advise me. Please send me a note, I’d love to hear if you are a natural beekeeper producing organic honey even if you apply smoke to your bees. I guess it could be natural, organic smoke, sourced from the dried pods of organically grown sumac.
I realize that some beekeepers are worried that smoke – even in tiny amounts – will hurt their bees. I appreciate the sentiment. Unfortunately, without smoke, any hive examination is precarious. When Betty Bee alerts Henrietta and Suzy who then alert their four best friends who tell sixteen more about an intrusion, hundreds of bees may go wild in a minute. The beekeeper may suffer a lot of stings. The key is to learn to use smoke in very carefully delivered doses. This is something learned from experience, though I’ll mention some tips in coming posts.
So, I strongly recommend using a bee smoker (or corncob pipe). Next blog post (maybe tomorrow), I’ll write about lighting and using a smoker. We’ll also consider the many types of fuel. My favourite was pine straw but I don’t use it anymore – later, you’ll see why.