Updated on September 11th, 2022
Beekeepers rely on two main tools for hive inspections: a bee smoker and a hive tool. While a hive tool is used to manipulate hive boxes and frames, a smoker is used to manage the honey bees.
A bee smoker holds smoldering, smoking fuel. Puffing cool smoke on bees causes bees to move out of the beekeeper’s way and disrupts the colony’s ability to communicate via pheromones lowering their defensive behavior. Manipulating bee behavior with smoke makes hive inspections easier.
A bee smoker is a must-have tool for every hive inspection. This article will explain how a bee smoker works and how to use it.
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What Is A Bee Smoker?
A bee smoker is one of the most important beekeeping tools and is used for virtually every hive inspection. A smoker is used to clear bees out of your way and decrease defensive their defensive behavior.
Modern bee smokers are usually made from stainless steel and can vary slightly in design and size. However, they all function in the same manner with similar components:
- Fire chamber with an internal, removable grill at the bottom and an air hole in the lower back
- Nozzle (as part of the lid)
- Heat shield
- Bellows with an airhole in line with the fire chamber’s air hole.
The fire chamber, a cylindrical can usually 4” in diameter, holds smoldering fuel to generate the smoke. Inside the bottom of the chamber, a grill or grate provides air space under the fuel.
Atop the fire chamber is a hinged lid with a nozzle. The nozzle directs smoke where needed. The cover may also have a small hook or handle.
The fire chamber may be covered with a heat shield. The heat shield is a wire cage that protects the beekeeper from direct contact with a hot fire chamber. Heat shields have hooks on the front side of the chamber which can be used to hang the smoker out of the way.,
A bellows (leather, canvas, or rubber) is attached to the fire chamber’s back. Squeezing the bellows pushes air into the fire chamber through air holes in each. The fire is kept smoldering by moving air into the chamber, and smoke is forced out the nozzle.
How Do Smokers Affect Bees?
The smoker calms bees in two ways: causing them to gorge on honey and disrupting communication with pheromones.
Smoke causes bees to gorge on honey in anticipation of exiting the hive due to fire. The urge for honey forces bees to move off frame tops and edges and into the hive’s interior. Once full of honey, the bees are calmer.
Smoke also disrupts any alarm pheromones that might cause the bees to become more defensive.
How To Light A Bee Smoker
If you look on YouTube, you’ll probably find many ways to fire up a bee smoker. In the end, they all boil down to pretty much the same thing.
Step 1 – After making sure your grill is correctly seated at the bottom of the fire chamber, light a piece of paper and drop it in the smoker.
Give the bellows a few pumps to fan the flame.
Step 2 – Add a small amount of fuel to the smoker and pump the bellows a few times to ignite it.
Step 3 – Gradually add some more fuel. Avoid packing the fuel in tightly to avoid smothering the fire. Continue to give the bellows a few pumps each time you add fuel.
As you add fuel and pump the bellows, keep your face and hands away from the chamber’s top. The fire may flare up, and you want to be clear of that.
Step 4 – As the fire spreads within the chamber, you can begin to pack fuel more tightly.
The more fuel you use, the longer the fire will smolder.
Step 5 – Close the lid.
This will limit air in the fire chamber and keep the fuel smoldering rather than burning up in an open fire. Use the bellows periodically to pump air feeding the fire and keep the smoke coming.
Initially, I’d put as much fuel in as possible and still keep it smoking. Eventually, you may start putting in less fuel when planning a short visit to the apiary and don’t need a long burn.
I have seen beekeepers online that take a little different approach:
- Pack your fuel in tightly, then
- Light the fuel with a propane torch.
This method seems to work, though we haven’t tried it (yet!).
The chamber can get very hot. Hold the smoker by the bellows to avoid getting burned.
Be careful not to set a lit smoker on top of anything that might burn. When I am done in the beeyard, I put the smoker down on a patch of bare dirt until it burns out.
What Do You Use For Bee Smoker Fuel?
You can use many things as fuel in a bee smoker, but there are some things you should never use.
DO NOT USE:
- Treated products of any kind. Do not subject your bees (or yourself) to the chemicals as they burn.
- Any fire accelerant such as lighter fluid or gasoline. If you follow our instructions, your smoker will work just fine without them.
The best kinds of fuel are dry, natural materials, many of which can be obtained for free. You can use:
- Cotton fibers
- Dried pine needles and pine cones
- Wood chips or wood shavings
- Dry straw or grass
Again, with all these fuel items, use natural, untreated materials. See our article Best Fuels For Bee Smokers for more information and some recommended products if you don’t have free material available.
If you don’t want to source your own fuel, you can purchase it from bee suppliers. Urban beekeepers, in particular, may find this easier than looking for pine needles.
For example, Mann Lake sells smoker fuel made from cotton fibers and cottonseed husks and another consisting of wood pellets. You may get similar items elsewhere; buying from a bee supplier will give you comfort that the fuel is safe for bees.
How To Use A Bee Smoker
We take three things for every hive inspection: some protective gear, a hive tool, and a lit bee smoker.
There have been many times when the smoker was barely used, if at all. You don’t want to start lighting a smoker after opening the hive and realizing you need it.
Some beekeepers puff smoke on their hands/gloves and tools in advance, apparently for the scent to keep the bees at bay. I have no idea if it works but feel free to give it a try.
Before opening the hive, I give a puff or two into the entrances. then I lift it slightly and give a few gusts of smoke inside. I set the cover down and wait a little while for the smoke to have an effect.
This preliminary smoking should disarm the guard bees as you start to work.
Once inside the hive, I mainly use the smoker if I want to move the bees out of my way or if they become a bit defensive.
For example, if I want to remove or replace frames and bees are heavily congregated in a spot where I might cause serious disruption, a couple of smoke puffs will move them away.
In a populous hive, bees may be sitting on the edges when I need to replace the box above them. A few puffs of smoke can help you avoid crushing them.
Close to the nozzle, air from the smoker may be hot. Hold the smoker a few inches away so the bees get cool smoke.
If bees are overly defensive, banging on my hood, and generally distracting me from my work, I blow smoke around me to disrupt the alarm pheromones. Usually, this is all it takes to lessen or stop the activity.
Sometimes, the bees may be incredibly bad-tempered, and no amount of smoke will make a difference. In those cases, I may either walk away for a few minutes to give them a break or close the hive entirely and come back another time.
How To Clean A Bee Smoker
Over time, large amounts of creosote will build up inside and rim of the smoker. Creosote can become so heavy that it becomes difficult to open and close the lid properly. It can also narrow the nozzle opening making the smoker less effective.
You can remove some creosote with a good degreaser or scrape it off with a hive tool around the rim. The circular shape of the fire chamber makes scraping the inside pretty tricky.
We’ve found the best way to clean a bee smoker is with heat. Before you do this, remove the bellows, so you don’t damage it.
If you use heating devices to clean your bee smoker, follow all manufacturer’s instructions, and take precautions to avoid injury or property damage.
Using A Propane Torch
A properly-fueled propane torch like this one on Amazon will provide enough heat to turn creosote to ash. Ashes can then be easily brushed off.
We don’t have a small propane torch, but we have a Weed Dragon, which you can find here on Amazon. The Weed Dragon is basically an oversized propane torch for burning off weeds. It attaches to a standard barbecue-style propane tank.
While the Weed Dragon did a great job cleaning the smoker, it can be too hot. If you try a similar device, I suggest using a relatively low output.
Using A Gas Grill
We often clean our gas grill’s steel grates by burning off food at high temperatures. You can clean your bee smoker at the same time by placing it on the grill at the same time.
Using the gas grill is more passive than the propane torch.
Can A Beekeeper Work Without A Bee Smoker?
Yes, you can work without a bee smoker. You can also work without clothes but I don’t recommend it.
We have Langstroth hives and bees are often in the way as we move boxes. With a top bar hive, there are no boxes to move. I would expect to need a smoker less frequently with a top bar, or horizontal, hive.
See our article What Is A Horizontal Hive? for more information.
Some alternatives to using smoke are manipulation cloths (or cloaks) and various water sprays.
A manipulation cloth is basically a fancy term for material that covers a hive box you’ve set aside. The concept is to keep the box dark, as it would be in a closed hive, so the bees just go about their business and leave you alone.
You can buy a manipulation cloak, but they seem rather expensive to me. You can achieve the same result with an inexpensive, light material. Manipulation cloths include a frame that helps keep them in place.
I’ve never had much trouble with the hive boxes I’ve set aside so I have no urge to try a manipulation cloak.
You can give bees a light misting with water to get them moving. Some beekeepers add a little bit of sugar or some essential oils (lemongrass or spearmint, mostly).
I would only water mist in fairly warm weather. Wetting bees in cold weather is a bad idea.
Limiting Use Of A Smoker
I often work a hive using little or no smoke. Sometimes the bees are incredibly calm and cooperative. I would not plan on that always being the case.
However, with proper inspection techniques, you may limit your need for a smoker. Follow the same guidelines we give for avoiding bee stings. (Avoiding stings can help avoid alarm pheromones.)
Inspect hives in the middle of warm, pleasant days. With field bees foraging, there are fewer bees in the hive to get in the way or become agitated. Bees can be crankier in bad weather (like you).
Work from the back or side of the hive. Standing in front of the hive is more likely to trigger a reaction from guard bees.
Work slowly and methodically. A calmer you can mean calmer bees. If you handle the bees roughly or quickly, they may become defensive.
A bee smoker is a “must-have” tool in every beekeeper’s arsenal.
When you start as a backyard beekeeper, you may struggle to get it lit and keep it smoking. Don’t fret. You will get the hang of it.
A bee smoker gets very hot, so remember to be careful.
Take it to the apiary for every hive inspection. You won’t regret it.
This article is part of a series on how to start beekeeping, a step-by-step guide to your first year of beekeeping.
Check out our next beekeeping tool article, What Is A Hive Tool? (The Ultimate Beekeeping Tool)