When our son first started keeping bees I had no idea what a beekeeping smoker was used for or what to put in the smoker. The smoker is really a beekeeper’s best friend but there is a learning curve to using it. There is also a wide variety of items you can use in your smoker; many of them are probably already growing on your property.
The beekeeping smoker hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. It’s basically a metal can which is called the fire chamber. The can has a hinged, directional spout which acts like a chimney and bellows for circulating air through the fire chamber.
Why a Beekeeping Smoker is Important
Smoking a beehive allows a beekeeper to work in the hive in relative peace. That’s the reason for the smoke.
Honeybees communicate by releasing pheromones which are chemical substances that have a distinct odor. The smoke covers up the odor and the bees cannot communicate.
When the beehive is being smoked, some bees will retreat into the farthest corners of the hive away from the smoke. For some bees, the smoke will cause them to find uncapped honey and start eating. That way if the hive is destroyed the bee will have some food for survival. The guard bees will usually just fly around over the hive.
The smoke will confuse the bees for a while but after some time they’ll start flying again. Try to keep the hive open for no more than 10-15 minutes, even less if the temperatures are below 55° F.
Lighting the Beekeeping Smoker
When you light the smoker you want to have fuel in it that will produce smoke, not something that just catches on fire and burns up quickly. You will want the smoke to be cool and not hot when you smoke the bees.
To start with, you need something that will act as tinder and light easily. Some people like to use a bit of newspaper, hay or dried pine needles. Put the lit newspaper or a handful of lit dried pine needles into the smoker and give the bellows a couple of puffs. You can also use sawdust, leaves or punk wood which is rotted wood that will crumble in your hand. Untreated burlap or bailing twine are also good choices.
Once the tinder is lit, put something in the smoker to act as coal. It doesn’t need to be big. It can be twigs, wood chips or even a pine cone. This will help it burn slower. Make sure that you give the bellows a couple of puffs after adding anything into the smoker. This will keep oxygen running through the smoker and keep the fire lit.
Lastly, pack the smoker tight with something like leaves or pine needles. Allow the smoker to sit for five to 10 minutes, puffing every few minutes. Once the smoke is cool, it’s ready to use.
Resinous materials will also help the smoker burn longer, you can use pine needles, eucalyptus leaves, rosemary, lavender or even orange peels.
Some people like to add herbs to the smoker for the pleasant aroma. Herbs such as basil, oregano, sage, rose, fennel, dill or coriander are great choices. So, make sure to include planting herbs in your beehive plans, not only will they be great for the forager bees but you can also use them in the smoker.
If the smoker was packed tightly it should smolder for quite a while. If it seems to go out, give it a few rapid puffs which should get the smoldering coals going again.
There are some things you should not ever use in a smoker. You should not ever use anything that is synthetic or has been treated with chemicals. If you use burlap or bailing twine, make sure you know if it’s been treated against rotting quickly. Be sure not to use treated wood or wood from pallets unless you know for sure it’s untreated wood. Don’t use gasoline or any kind of petroleum product.
Using the Beekeeping Smoker
Once the smoker is lit and is producing cool, white smoke it’s ready to use.
It’s best to use slow, long puffs instead of short, quick puffs to smoke the bees. First, smoke the opening and then raise the cover and smoke the top of the hive.
It should only take a few puffs to subdue the bees. It is possible to use too much smoke and wind up with smoky honey and smoky comb. Not over smoking is especially important if you are using a DIY honey extractor and crushing the comb. Heavy smoking can cause soot particles to stick to freshly capped comb which will mix with the honey when it’s crushed.
You can also puff some smoke on yourself if the bees are a little too interested in you.
When learning how to start a honey bee farm, it’s easy to overlook the need to learn new skills before we actually need to use them. Lighting a smoker and keeping it lit can take some practice so if you don’t get it right the first time, just dump out the contents of the smoker and try again. It’s best to practice a few times before you need to use the smoker so you know you can keep it lit for at least 10 minutes when you need to.
When you’re done working with the smoker and it’s still lit and smoking, you can snuff it out by putting a cork in the chimney. Without oxygen, the fire will go out in few minutes. Once the smoker is completely cooled off, you can safely empty the smoker and put it away.
As you can see from the photos, we use pine needles and pine cones since that is what we readily have on our property. What do have on our property you can use in your beekeeping smoker?