One of the most important tools a beekeeper uses when inspecting a hive is a smoker. It’s used by beekeepers because the smoke helps to calm the bees and divert their attention to the protection of the hive and away from the beekeeper.
A smoker is comprised of several parts: a steel cylinder that holds the burnable fuel, the leather or vinyl bellows that keep the fuel alight, and the lid from which the smoke issues. Many smokers have a heat shield around the outside that protect you from getting burnt. I recommend purchasing one with the heat shield, especially if you are new because you will not be used to using a smoker and have a higher chance of burning yourself.
Another tip is when transporting your smoker it’s a good idea to place it in a metal bucket if you have one. This ensures your smoker remains upright when you’re working in the hive and can be placed on the floor of your car if you have to travel to inspect your hive.
What To Use As Fuel For Your Bee Smoker
I use matches and newspapers to initially light my smoker, then I add pine needles on top. Where I live, we have an abundance of pine trees. Pine needles are also a capable fuel because they burn slowly, last long, and emit cool white smoke.
Other suitable sources of fuel include cardboard, hessian sacks, paperbark, dry gum leaves, sugar cane mulch or sawdust, to name a few. If using cardboard, hessian sacks, or sawdust just make sure they are free of chemicals, as you don’t want to harm your bees.
Some beekeepers I know use a barbecue lighter or propane torch to light the fuel. This is a quick and easy alternative to matches. Experiment to find out what works best for you.
How To Use Your Bee Smoker
First of all, make sure you have plenty of fuel. You’ll need a sufficient amount to keep the smoker going long enough to complete all the tasks you have in mind to do during the inspection.
Assemble all the equipment you need – your smoker, matches or lighter, and fuel in one location. I don’t light my smoker near the hive, I have it emitting cool white smoke first then I carry it in the metal bucket to the hive, along with a bag of extra fuel just in case. Bees require cool white smoke, not hot smoke.
I take a few strips of newspaper, put them in the smoker, and light them. Once they are alight, I introduce a handful or two of pine needles (or other material of your choice) while puffing the bellows.
I’ll keep puffing the bellows while adding more fuel slowly unless the fire has gone out. (In that case, I’ll start again.)
If the fire is going well, I will add more fuel and pump the bellows, adding more and more fuel until the smoker is quite full. By this time I should have a good flow of cool white smoke, so I put the lid back on. I keep puffing the bellows to ensure the fire keeps going.
Using the Smoker
Once the smoker is alight, it’s important to remember before approaching the hive, that the smoker is emitting a cool white smoke and not a hot smoke. Hot smoke can harm the bees.
It’s also essential to err on the side of caution when using the smoker. You only want to mask the pheromones of the hive, not overcome the bees with smoke. Too much smoke can negatively affect the hive and take the colony days to recover.
Before opening the hive, first, emit a few puffs of smoke into the entrance. Then slide the lid across a little and puff smoke inside. I wait approximately 30 seconds for this to take effect, then I remove the lid completely and send a few more puffs of smoke into the hive. This is usually enough to calm the bees, and they will go down into the hive between the frames.
Bees associate smoke with an approaching fire, so they will eat honey to prepare for a possible evacuation. For that reason, they will not be too focused on you. If the bees in the hive are aggressive, you may have to wait a few minutes after initially smoking the hive before undertaking an inspection.
I place the smoker back in the metal bucket and away from the hive a short distance. I still want to be able to reach it should I need it – but I don’t want to kick it over while I make my way around the hive. Nor do I want the bees congregating on it as they will get toasted! The bellows will need a few puffs every now and again to keep the smoker alight.
Putting Out The Smoker
I don’t ever actively distinguish the burning materials inside the smoker. At the end of the inspection, I simply place the smoker, still in its metal bucket, in an area away from flammable materials and allow it to go out by itself. I usually undertake other tasks nearby immediately after using the smoker, so I keep an eye on it as a precaution. When the burnt material is cool, I shake it out into my compost pile.
Alternatively, rather than let the fuel burn out by itself, you could use a bucket of water to extinguish it. However, I tend not to do this as it can make the smoker a bit messy. Other beekeepers suggest sticking a cork in the spout or laying the smoker on its side to prevent air from reaching the fuel, helping it to burn out more quickly.
An essential tool for the beekeeper is a good quality smoker and one that is not too small. I suggest talking to a knowledgeable beekeeper at your club before purchasing one to find out what they recommend. Buy the best one you can afford, and it will last you a long time and be a reliable tool for your hive inspections.