Whether it’s time for another routine hive inspection or the time has come to collect frames of honey to harvest, beekeepers should try to minimize their impact on bees during their interactions. Sometimes, depending on numerous factors such as the bee breed or weather conditions, some bees may get stressed and even aggressive when a beekeeper is present.
When bees feel threatened, they will communicate via pheromone to alert the rest of the hive that something is wrong. That’s why beekeepers will always have a bee smoker on hand. A few puffs of smoke will calm an entire colony before they have a chance to plan their attack against their intruder.
But new beekeepers often wonder: is smoking bad for bees?
Does Smoke Harm Bees?
Beekeepers have been using some version of a smoker for decades. During that time, there have been no long-term effects on a hive’s health. Although smoke will mask pheromone, bees can sense them again about 20 minutes after the smoke disperses.
Bee smokers are only harmful if beekeepers use them inappropriately. Here are some common mistakes that beekeepers do when using a smoker:
- Dispersing hot smoke. Modern smokers should be fueled with natural materials such as pine cones, wood chips, or natural fabrics. They produce a smoke that is the appropriate temperature to use on bees. If the temperature is too hot, it can melt the bees’ wings.
- Making too much smoke. If a beekeeper uses too much smoke at once, bees will go into a panic. Don’t over-smoke a beehive. Instead, only puff once at the entrance of the hive. Puff smoke sparingly during the inspection.
- Opening the hive too soon after smoking. Some new beekeepers will open the hive immediately after smoking the entrance. It’s best to wait a minute and observe the reaction of the bees. Sometimes, bees can behave unexpectedly and it’s best to find out before opening the hive.
Some beekeepers are pushing for a “natural beekeeping” movement that does not involve smoking, but a smoker protects not only you but also your bees. Bees are not exposed to smoke for long instances, so their health is not in jeopardy. However, like with humans, stress can negatively impact bees over time. It’s a beekeeper’s job to open their hives and ensure the health of the colony. If bees are experiencing high stress every time the beekeeper intrudes, they can become more aggressive when there is any sign of a human in proximity.
What Does Smoke Do To Bees?
A bee smoker is a tool designed to create smoke from various types of natural fuels aimed to keep bees calm. Smokers calm down bees in two ways: it limits their sense of smell (also known as pheromones) and it initiates their survival response.
Bees communicate through smell. They will release pheromones to communicate a message to one another. When an intruder is near the hive, bees will release an alarm pheromone that will cause the rest of the bees to react defensively. This alarm will make the other bees ready to stage an attack against the threat that is approaching them.
A bee smoker masks the pheromone, leaving bees unaware of an alarm. Without their sense of smell, other bees won’t know of any danger and therefore, they stay calm.
A bee smoker simulates a forest fire for honeybees. As soon as bees come into contact with smoke, they go into survival mode. Because they think that their surroundings are on fire, the honeybees will begin preparations to leave their hive. They eat as much honey as they can so it can be saved from the flames and moved to their new home. This not only distracts bees from beekeepers, but full stomachs also make bees happy. When a bee has a belly full of honey, their abdomens expand so much that they can’t bend over to sting a predator.
How Do I Use A Bee Smoker?
Cylindrical burners are a popular form of bee smokers. It’s a small tool that allows for the emission of cool, light smoke. Beekeepers can hold and squeeze bellows that pushes out air. This causes oxygen to go in the burner and results in a puff of smoke.
It’s common for beekeepers to puff smoke around the hive before opening it. After several seconds, the bees should begin to slow down in their activities. Many different types of fuel can be used to keep the smoker continually lit. The basic steps for lighting a bee smoker are:
- Burn some old newspaper and place it on the bottom of the smoker.
- Squeeze the bellows to ensure the newspaper maintains a flame.
- Add some kindling, such as dry twigs or pine cones, until the burner is around ¾ full.
- Once the kindling is glowing, add any fuel of your choice.
- Use the bellows until you have a cool, white smoke.
Using these steps, your smoker should remain lit for the duration of the hive inspection.
A smoker can be used initially and sometimes during an inspection. Overusing a smoker will not make bees calmer. Unless a hive is naturally aggressive, most docile bees only need a few puffs of smoke at the entrance before beginning an inspection. A few quick puffs are all that a hive needs to see the effects of a smoker. It’s encouraged to only smoke the entrance and not all sides of the hive so bees can move away from an area.
Is There An Alternative To Smoking Bees?
Beekeepers have many opinions on when to use a smoker. Ultimately, each beekeeper must understand their bees’ behavior to know if they need to use a smoker at every inspection. If your bees are generally docile and you find that they are not highly stressed during inspections, it’s worth experimenting with not using a smoker.
For more information on working on a beehive without a smoker, see our article about calming bees without a smoker.
Beekeepers have been using smoke to calm bees for generations. There have been no long-term side effects on the bees’ health and smoke protects a colony from experiencing high levels of stress and aggression.
Smokers are only harmful when beekeepers use them inappropriately. Before using a smoker, be sure to understand how to use it properly so you don’t accidentally melt bees or shock them.
As a beekeeper, it’s your responsibility to know your hive’s behavior and temperament. You need to decide if a smoker is necessary for every interaction. If your hive is generally docile, you may not need to use a smoker for every inspection. If your hive displays aggression easily, it may be safer to always have a smoker on hand.
Bee smokers are a necessary tool for all levels of beekeepers. It’s important to do all you can to protect, not only yourself but your hive as well.
When you’re ready to take a step forward in beekeeping, check out our list of the best smokers for beekeepers on the market today.
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