Beekeepers have been smoking bees for centuries, yet many look for alternatives to the long-time practice. There are many reasons why someone would choose not to smoke their bees, from risk of compromising the honey’s taste to wanting to practice natural beekeeping. The choice to look for alternatives to smoking bees is a personal decision that should not be taken lightly. If you are not able to calm your bees in alternative ways, there can be many unnecessary stings to the beekeeper and even more unnecessary deaths for the bees. This article is intended to outline how you can calm bees without smoke.
Whether you are gathering the frames for honey harvesting or you just want to inspect the hive’s health, interacting with bees may cause a lot of stress for them. If you don’t plan to use a smoker, be sure to wait for the right conditions before opening the hive. You will find the colony to be calmer from the beginning.
Why do some beekeepers choose not to use a smoker?
Smoking bees can be a controversial topic. There are many factors to consider when deciding when to handle a hive without a smoker. It’s an individual choice based on comfort. Some beekeepers do not want to use smoke because they believe it affects the taste of the honey and combs. Others would rather seek alternative methods to calm down bees because smoking can be messy and the smell is strong. Luckily, there are several alternatives that a beekeeper can use to calm down bees.
When is the best time of the day to open the hive without a smoker?
Aim for the mid-morning. Mid-morning is the best time of the day to open a hive. Bees can be grumpy and more defensive if you choose to open the hive at dawn or dusk. Bees are also very active in the mid-morning which is a good thing because most of the forager worker bees will be away from the hive. That means when you open the hive, there will be less bees waiting for you. If weather conditions are not ideal on the day you plan to open the hive, it’s best to reschedule for a day that is more ideal.
What are the best weather conditions when opening a hive without a smoker?
Sunny, Dry, & Still. The best weather to open a hive is: sunny, warm, and dry with no wind. In other words, you want to ensure the weather conditions outside mimic the weather conditions inside the hive. Ideally, you’d want it to be around 85°F, close to the temperature inside of the hive. Remember that bees do not like rain, wind or cold air. Check your local weather for any chance of precipitation. Do not attempt to open the hive right before rain or, even worse, a thunderstorm. Bees are very stressed before a storm and most of the colony will be inside of the hive.
Winter. Honeybees are docile during the winter, so you don’t need to smoke bees during the cold season. Bees form a cluster to stay warm so they are not eager to break apart.
What should I do when handling bees without a smoker?
Remain Calm. Staying calm is the most important thing you can do when handling bees without a smoker. Many new beekeepers find it to be difficult to remain calm when they open a hive. Luckily, this is natural and will get easier to do after much practice. Remember that bees are magnificent creatures that are very intuitive to your energy. Like a dog or horse, if you approach them with fear and doubt, they will respond the same. Breathe and try to relax when you work on your hive.
Many beekeepers find that the key to remaining calm is wearing a beekeeping suit. A beekeeping suit will protect the wearer from stings. Knowing that they won’t feel the stings and that bees won’t be crawling directly on them help beekeepers remain calm. Check out our list of the best beekeeping suits: 10 Best Beekeeping Suits.
If you choose not to wear a beekeeping suit, then be sure to wear low contrast, light-color clothing. Dark colors will alarm bees.
Wear clean clothes. Whether it’s a beekeeping suit or any other clothing, be sure to wear freshly washed clothes. Particularly, avoid wearing unwashed clothing that you wore during your last hive inspection. If you wore a beekeeping suit in a prior inspection and you still have stings in the fabric, it will release an alarm pheromone into the air. This alerts the bees that there is a threat close by and they will get aggressive. If you do find stings on you while you are working on the hive, you can mask the smell with smoke (if you plan to have a smoker on hand in case you need it) or with an essential oil like peppermint.
Be slow and quiet. Bees do not like vibrations so keep your movement slow and steady when handling the hive. Make sure neighbors are not mowing the lawn nearby and avoid dropping objects close to the hive. There’s no need to be in a hurry when performing your tasks. Move slowly and reduce the chances of making too much noise. Avoid talking loudly near the hive. This can alarm the bees and make them defensive.
Breathe through your nose. Bees are very intuitive and therefore equate hot breath to predators. In fact, bees have learned to react defensively to carbon dioxide. As you learn to remain calm and relaxed, also pay close attention to your breathing. Don’t exhale heavily when working with your hive. Learn to breathe lightly through your nose.
Be aware of your smell. Bees don’t like the smell of old sweat, yet they are attracted to fresh sweat because it is full of minerals. Don’t be alarmed if you notice bees attempting to drink your sweat for this reason. It’s best to shower right before opening a hive. Avoid putting on perfume or other strong smells before interacting with bees.
Don’t crush the bees. Unfortunately, not using a smoker means that bees will be more active and there is a higher risk of them being crushed while you’re working on the hive. Attempt not to crush any of the bees if you can help it. Bees release an alarm pheromone when they are crushed that will be communicated to the other bees in the colony. This will make the rest of the bees more defensive.
The best ways to avoid crushing bees is to move slowly during hive inspections. Be intentional with every move you make. Also, wear tighter gloves or no gloves at all. Many new beekeepers make the mistake of wearing gloves that are too big. As a result, they lose control and will drop or bump more objects.
Finally, it’s good practice to keep a smoker on hand in case of emergency. If you do crush a bee, use a few puffs of smoke to cover the alarm pheromone.
What are alternatives to smoking bees?
Create your own spray. Instead of a smoker, some beekeepers create their own spray to use on bees in order to calm them down. Every hive is different so it may require experimenting with the different variations. Some bees remain calm with just plain water while other hives do better with an essential oil. There are many variations you can use including:
- Plain Water
- Sugar (Syrup) Water (1:3 mix)
- Lemon Grass Oil & Spearmint (2-3 drops in a spray bottle with plain water)
- Pimpinella Anise Oil (2-3 drops in a spray bottle with plain water)
When using a spray bottle, you aren’t drenching the bees in your mixture. Instead, just spray on the inside walls of the hive.
Bee manipulation cloth. Bee manipulation cloths are great for calming down a hive during an inspection. After opening a hive, you can place a cloth across the top of the box. Many beekeepers will spray down the cloth with their sugar or essential oil spray. The cloth will keep the bees in the dark and happy while you’re inspecting the hive. It keeps the bees controlled and will reduce hovering on the top bars. The cloth forces the bees to remain near the bottom of the hive which protects the bees from getting crushed. You can purchase bee manipulation clothes at beekeeping stores or you can use old towels and shirts.
When do I need to use a smoker?
It’s good practice to keep a smoker on hand, just in case your bees become aggressive. If bees become defensive, you risk the safety of your family and neighbors close by. There are several reasons why you may need to opt for using a smoker.
Adding a new queen bee. Smoke is helpful when introducing a new queen to a hive. Smoke will mask the pheromones of the new queen when she’s initially moved in. Then, as the smoke disperses, her odor becomes more apparent gradually which makes for an easier transition.
Hive splits & combinations. Smoking bees protects them during major disruptions that can cause loud noises or vibrations. If you plan to split or join hives or move frames, using a smoker is necessary to keep bees calm, stay in the hive, and reduce the chances of attack.
Honey extraction. Some beekeepers find it helpful to use smoke when removing frames for honey extraction. It should be noted that there are many beekeepers who choose not to smoke when the frames are full of capped honey. They believe the smoke can affect the taste of the honey.
Be sure to check out our list of the best bee smokers on the market today.
Using a smoker isn’t a black and white decision. As you move forward in your beekeeping endeavors, you will find those who use smokers exclusively and others that won’t use the tool at all. In the end, it’s about finding balance. The temperament of every hive is different. If your colony is naturally more aggressive, then you should opt to use a smoker more often. Defensive bees can be threatening to your neighbors and puts the colony at risk.
While using a smoker is an individual decision, always keep the safety of your hive in mind. What you want and what your hive needs may be two different things. Don’t compromise the health of your hive because of your own preferences.
There are many alternatives to using a smoker, but not every method works the same for different hives. Be sure to test out various methods and see what works best for your bees. Especially as a new beekeeper, it’s important to experiment with different strategies to see what works best for you and your colony.
Learn More About Beekeeping
Whether you have one or two hives in your backyard or have acres dedicated to honeybees, all beekeepers need to start with the foundations of maintaining a hive.
As a beekeeper, you will need to have an extensive understanding on topics including:
Best Hive Location
Different Bee Species
How to Inspect the Hive
Spot Parasites and Diseases
How to Install A Colony