Smokers, beware: Bee Smoker 101

If you’re somewhat new at beekeeping, you haven’t been using a smoker for long. You might not know some of the peculiarities of the hot little machine. I’ll give some basics here. Tomorrow, we’ll look at smoker safety, aka, how not to destroy your bee yard in a wall of fire.

Here’s my suggestion. Get a good smoker. Light it before you approach the bees. Be sure that there’s a hot fire in the smoke pot. Then stuff your smoker with fuel, almost smothering the fire. At this point, you should have white and gray smoke drifting from the smoker. Keep puffing vigorously, even if you think you’ve got the thing going well. If you see sparks or flame, that’s a bit of a faux pas in the beekeepers’ world so add more fuel as a filter to block those sparks. If you missed yesterday’s post, we mentioned types of smoker fuel. There’s a lot of choice.

A common mistake is to light the smoker, then ignore it while unloading your vehicle, carting stuff to the hives, and dressing up in your beesuit. By the time you open a hive, you discover that the smoker is no longer smoking. Even worse is having a feeble little bit of smoke that simply dies at the moment your hive is disassembled and the bees are growing cranky. Again, make a hot fire and add fresh fuel on top of the fire, forcing it to smolder and not burn too fast. Balance the heat, quality of smoke, and smolder longevity.

Before you open your hive, give its entrance(s) a soft whiffy puff of cool smoke. This should not take more than a few seconds. Your goal is not to inflate the size of the hive by vigorously pumping the bellows as if you are blowing up a balloon. Instead, a soft wisp of smoke, directed at the entrance and slightly into the hive is enough. Next, lift the lid and give the top bars a puff or two of cool white smoke. Don’t smoke down between the frames into the hive (it could injure brood) but across the top bars instead. Another ten seconds should be enough.

I’m giving my hive a bit of smoke across the top bars, not down into the hive.

You may now set the smoker aside, but keep it close at hand in case you find the bees becoming defensive. By the way, the smoker is hot and dangerous so ‘setting the smoker aside’ means placing it somewhere (on the lid of a nearby unopened hive, for example) where it is safe and not lying on its side in tall dry grass where it might start a fire.

Top of an unopened hive can be a safe space for your smokers.

In practice, another puff or two every three or four minutes is usually all you need, but that depends on the weather, hive strength, mood of the colony, and manipulations you are doing. With a few seasons of beekeeping, you begin to know when smoke is necessary. With experience, you will use less and less smoke – and may even become a smokerless beekeeper, though it’s a good practice to keep a lit smoker nearby. Just in case.

Although I’m extolling the virtues of smoke, there are several reasons to use smoke cautiously. It’s not healthy for you. Nor is it healthy for bees if their trachea get plugged with smoke soot. Too much smoke can literally drive bees out of a hive, into the grass where the queen might be injured or lost. Too much smoke can make the bees aggressive and confused. Too much smoke damages honey – beeswax is a fatty acid which absorbs odours. I once sampled comb honey which had a distinct bar-b-que flavour because the beekeeper used smoke to chase the bees out of her comb honey super.

There’s more that I could say, but a few days ago, I saw this video made by the University of Guelph. It does a better job showing smoker techniques than I can explain in words. The video features the Guelph’s apiary manager, Paul Kelly.  The photography is classy and the beekeeper walks you through handling a smoker.

The video is a bit dramatic. It shows much more smoke than I’d ever use, but I think that Paul Kelly is trying to emphasize that you need to be sure you have a good fire going so that it doesn’t quit while you are working.  By the way, he mentions that when you are finished, you can dump the smoker material on the ground. Don’t do this. I know beekeepers who have caused serious fires by dumping the hot ash, even though they think they have extinguished the fire on the ground. Kelly also mentions that care must be taken transporting a hot smoker in a vehicle, being careful that it doesn’t fall over. I have a trick that will help you with this. We’ll see it tomorrow when I end this little series on smokers by looking at smoker safety and mistakes that can cause big, big trouble for you.

 

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeepingblog.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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2 Responses to Smokers, beware: Bee Smoker 101

  1. susan rudnicki says:

    I live in So California, have AHB which are untreated for pests, but are resilient and workable. A smoking before working makes all the difference. All my stacks have a screen inner cover for ventilation—helps to keep foundationless combs from dropping out of the frames in high heat of summer. I usually use pine needles (abundant on the ground) with a light topping of paper from the shredder for ignition. Depending on the time of year—dearthy times are more difficult—I will lightly smoke every hive in the apiary so that when I start opening hives 5 or 10 minutes later, my selected hive for inspection does not rile up the others. I also use my smoker VERY lightly as I pull and replace frames so the bees are “herded” to a safer post while I work. Just the tiniest puff down between the endbars as the frame is replaced helps bees not get rolled or squished—which will anger their sisters. I always unstack to the lowest box I want to view right from the beginning. This keeps the bees from becoming crowded into the lower reaches as the smoker is used, comingling with the crowds of incoming foragers, that would happen if I inspected by going from the top box down

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, these are all excellent points. I didn’t mention that I also always smoke every hive in the yard before opening the first one – that’s really good to remember. I like your suggestion of unstacking to the lowest box right away if you are doing things like brood checks for disease or looking for the queen. Beginners should know that if they are adding supers or reversing honey boxes, their lowest box is higher than the brood chamber and the advice still stands.

      Liked by 1 person

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