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How to light a smoker so it stays lit

Once you decide to light your smoker, how do you keep it lit? Many beekeepers report that before they’ve finished just one hive, their smoker is cold as night and they have to begin again.

In truth, everything you need to know about smokers you learned in elementary school. I’m thinking of those “fire triangles” that always appear in science textbooks. The triangle usually has a graphic of red and orange flames in the center, and each of the three points is labeled. Oxygen. Fuel. Heat.

Don’t forget the basics

If your smoker is going out, you are likely neglecting one of the three points. You may have put all three elements in the smoker, but unless they are pampered, the fire is apt to go out.

For example, when you build a campfire you generally begin by lighting some quick-burning fuel like newspaper, paraffin fire starters, or finely split tinder. Plenty of oxygen surrounds your pile, so you just add heat in the form of a match or torch, and the fire starts. After the starter material gets hot and burns on its own, you add larger pieces of wood, often called kindling. When the kindling gets going, you can finally add logs. Now all you need is marshmallows.

You know that hot air rises and you can see the burning gases (flames) as they rise from the fire. You can get quite close to the fire on the perimeter, but the space above the fire is extremely hot. Even your marshmallows will burn if held directly over the flames.

Don’t light the top

I have a neighbor, a regular he-man, who can’t build a fire to save his life. I’ve seen him try to light big slash piles of logging debris by dousing diesel fuel over the top. He lights it, flames shoot skyward among billows of black smoke, but within 20 minutes the diesel fuel is gone and his slash pile remains undamaged.

In the same way, some beekeepers stuff their smoker with fuel and then light the top. It may flair up for a few minutes, but then it goes out. When you light the top, the hot gases move up and out of the smoker, but they don’t ignite the fuel down below, so it goes out. You need to light the fuel at the bottom first, so the hot gases move up through the fresh fuel and make it burn.

Going back to our example, if you build a campfire in the style of a tepee or log cabin, you can still light it from the bottom and be successful. But the way a smoker is designed, it is difficult to fill the canister and then light it from the bottom. So you have to do it in increments.

Steps to lighting a smoker

The following steps take longer than lighting the fuel at the top, but the extra time is worth it. Properly lit, the fire will smolder for long periods without going out.

  1. Begin with some quick-starting fuel like crumpled newspaper or pine needles. This fuel should not be packed tightly, but should be light and fluffy with lots of air spaces. Ignite the fuel, wait until it burns on its own, and then push it down to the bottom of the smoker with your hive tool. Squeeze the bellows a few times to force air up through the lightly-packed fuel.
  2. After the initial fuel is burning well, add another handful of fluffy fuel to the smoker. Once it begins to burn, push it down with the hive tool and squeeze the bellows a few more times.
  3. Repeat the previous step one or two more times, always waiting for the fresh fuel to begin burning before pushing it down into the smoker, and always adding a few puffs of air.
  4. Once the fire is burning lustily and flames are licking the insides of the fuel chamber, you can add larger fuel and more oxygen.
  5. After the the larger fuel has ignited, you should be able to close the lid. At this point, the fire should smolder on its own with only an occasional squeeze on the bellows. Remember to check the fuel supply from time to time, and always add a few puffs of air along with the fresh fuel.

Once it’s hot, its’ hot

Once you have your smoker burning well, remember it will burn for a long time and it will be hot. It is easy to forget about the hot smoker once you have finished working your bees. It’s embarrassing to report that one day earlier this year after I finished hive inspections, I shed my bee suit and left my smoker on a wooden table in the backyard. Later, while talking to my husband in the front yard, I said, “I smell smoke.” It didn’t smell like the wood chips I had been using, and it wasn’t.  When I went to investigate, smoke was rising from a charred circle under the smoker. Moron. I could have burned the house down.

Honey Bee Suite

Table burned with smoker.
Oops. Embarrassing to admit, but I walked away from the smoker without checking it. © Rusty Burlew.

How often do you smoke your bees?

Are you a smoker? Beekeepers, like other kinds of smokers, seem to fall into two distinct camps: always or never. But like so many aspects of beekeeping, the decision to smoke your bees is not that simple.

Most traditional beekeepers keep their smokers close by, routinely lighting up no matter the circumstance. In my recent master beekeeping course the message was basically, “If you don’t use smoke, you’re not really a beekeeper.”

Many hobbyists on the other hand never use smoke. Some use nothing, and some use alternatives such as sugar water spray or mixtures containing emulsified essential oils. Although I have never tried the alternatives, it seems to me that honey bees are genetically predisposed to react to smoke but not necessarily to sugar in a sprayer.

Is it really all or nothing?

As usual, I reside somewhere in the middle of the smoker argument. Since I try to base my management decisions on facts not rules, I always ask myself if the present situation requires smoke. Furthermore, I ask if a particular colony requires smoke.

The mood of a colony can change drastically throughout the year, and it can even change during the day. With a few exceptions, I don’t see many downsides to using a smoker all the time, if that’s what you want to do. But if you would rather not use a smoker, there are times when it isn’t necessary but other times when it is foolish to go without.

My personal aversion to the smoker stems from the way it affects me. Sometimes I sneeze uncontrollably, to the point where I have to quit for the day, so if I can work without smoke, I generally do. But at other times, it is best for me to carefully assess the wind direction and position myself out of the cloud and proceed with caution.

Arguments in favor

A few puffs of smoke does wonders for a colony’s disposition. The bees disappear between the frames where they are out of harm’s way and out of your way. You can easily move frames, stack and re-stack boxes, inspect the brood nest, and scrape propolis without the fear of harming your bees. It is better for the bees because you are less likely to harm them. It also means you can get your work done more quickly, which is a plus for them as well as for you.

But just because something is good some of the time, doesn’t mean it is good all of the time. Many times I don’t use smoke or anything else, and I can go from colony to colony with easy efficiency.

When do I not use smoke?

    • During winter, honey bees are not eager to break cluster. I can tip up the quilt box, slide extra sugar patties into the feeder, and close the hive in a matter of about 10 seconds. Usually not a single bee emerges, so there is no reason to get everyone riled up with smoke.
    • Similarly, during a honey flow I often look under the cover to see if I need to add more honey supers. Honey bees are single-minded during a nectar flow, so I can take a quick peek and see their status without disturbing the colony. If they need a super, I can add one with no smoky disruption to their work.
    • In early spring when the weather starts to warm but drones are not yet evident, the colonies are especially docile. During these times, I can do quick inspections without smoke and the bees don’t even leave their frames.

When do I prefer smoke?

    • I use smoke during major disruptions such as complete hive inspections or colony splits. Smoke not only calms the bees, but they are more likely to stay on their frames, so moving frames from box to box is much easier.
    • Smoking can be helpful during queen introduction because the odor of smoke masks the pheromones of the new queen. As the smoke dissipates, her odor becomes more apparent to the bees, but the shift in odors is gradual instead of abrupt.
    • Smoke can be helpful when you are combining two or more colonies. I still use newspaper, but a little smoke keeps the bees calm during the process.
    • During a nectar dearth, a smoker can mask hive odors that draw robbers. Honey bee robbers and other predators such as wasps and yellowjackets are not drawn to the smell of smoke, so you are less likely to start a robbing frenzy.
    • Smoke can also be used during honey harvest when you remove your extracting frames from the hive.
    • It also makes good sense to assess your neighborhood. Nothing will interfere with your hobby faster than a neighbor who is intimidated by your bees. Smoking your colonies can keep them calm and close to home, behaviors that are especially important in an urban environment.

The exception for comb honey

Although convenience would dictate otherwise, I do not use smoke around full or soon-to-be-full comb honey supers. Consumers of comb honey eat the wax, and I have heard a number of consumer complaints about comb honey tasting or smelling unpleasantly of smoke. The smoke flavor can become incorporated into the wax and, if smoke was used during the capping stages, ash flakes can sometimes be seen on the surface.

The other downside to using smoke around comb honey is that the bees may decide to gorge on the delicate honey combs.  Even a few leaking cells can ruin the value of section honey, so it is best to keep the smoker well away from the completed rounds or squares.

The common sense imperative

More important than any of the situations listed above is common sense. But among those that extol the use of the smoker under any and all circumstances, I never see an exception for common sense.

The best example I can give is extreme fire danger. If you are living in an area with an elevated fire risk, if cigarette butts and campfires are starting wildfires that burn millions of acres, destroy homes, and kill both people and wildlife, perhaps you should forego the use of the smoker for a while. I can understand not wanting to harm a few bees, but how many creatures can you kill with a wildfire? Use good judgment and don’t compete for the Darwin award.

More is not better

Remember the saying “if some is good, more is better”? It applies to ice cream but not to smoke. Smoke should be applied in judicious puffs. Once the hives are open, small puffs can be used to “steer” the bees one way or the other. But do not over do it. Use too much and it loses its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the saying “moderation in all things” applies to both ice cream and smoke.

Honey Bee Suite

Smoker alight and ready. Pixabay photo.
Smoker alight and ready. Pixabay photo.

Absconding bees or death by Varroa?

This past fall, I received many reports and questions about absconding bees, perhaps fifty in all. Every year I get these and I must admit that I’ve always taken the beekeepers’ word for it when they said their bees absconded.

But this year I realized the sheer number of reports was off-kilter somehow. Yes, honey bees abscond on occasion, but it is rare, and it is usually the result of untenable conditions in the hive.

Absconding due to thymol

Only twice have I seen absconding myself. The first time was in the middle of a treatment with thymol (Apilife var) for Varroa mites. I found the cluster, along with their marked queen, in a nearby cedar tree where I was able to capture them. With a bit of research, I discovered other beekeepers who had similar experiences with thymol, especially when daytime temperatures spiked above the recommended treatment threshold.

Absconding due to scavengers

The second time one of my colonies absconded, I received a call from the landowner where I kept an outyard. She said yellowjackets were going in and out of one of my hives. By the time I got there, the bees were pouring out of the hive and clustering below the hive stand, queen and all. I was able to drop the cluster in an empty hive where it stayed. When I opened the original hive, I found it teeming with yellowjackets, bee bits, and ripped and dripping combs.

Other beekeepers have reported absconding after severe infestations with wax moths and small hive beetles. But in all three of these cases, the proximate cause was a scavenger, which means the colony was weak to start with. A healthy, vibrant colony is generally able to control attacks of yellowjackets, beetles, and wax moths. A weakened or hungry colony, however, may decide it is losing the battle and opt to leave. At least, this is how it appears.

Not absconding, but something else

The vast majority of the reports I heard this fall appeared not to be the result of mite treatments or scavengers. Instead, the stories, nearly identical in all cases, claimed the following:

  • The colony that “absconded” was the largest in the apiary, or one of the largest.
  • The incident occurred in September, October, or November.
  • The colony seemed normal during a recent inspection, usually between one and four weeks prior, and then suddenly disappeared.
  • The beekeeper did not see the bees leave or find them later.
  • Honey was left in the hive or it had clearly been robbed (as evidenced by ripped cells).
  • A small amount of brood remained in the hive.
  • A small number of listless bees lingered on the combs, but the rest were gone.
  • The queen was missing.

At first, I wondered if an influx of Africanized genes into the larger population was causing an increase in absconding, but I could find no evidence for that theory in recent literature. So I spent considerable time re-reading the reports (at least those I could find) and concluded that nothing about them suggested absconding. Instead, the observations listed are classic signs of collapse due to Varroa mites.

A plethora of non-treatments

Where I could, I went back and asked those beekeepers how they treated for mites and when. The answers were a hodgepodge, but some examples are listed below:

  • I didn’t see any mites so I didn’t treat
  • I dusted with powdered sugar in the spring and fall
  • I used Honey-B-Healthy
  • I used wintergreen patties
  • I bought a local queen
  • I have a screened bottom board

While there is nothing wrong with doing these things, none of them—even in combination—will handle a mite problem. Many different philosophies have evolved for raising bees in the world of Varroa, but learning to recognize an infestation seems like a logical first step.

Often, when I suggest a colony disappeared due to Varroa mites instead of absconding, I am roundly trounced. “No, they were fine last week.” “It’s not possible because it was my strongest colony.” “The colony was new this year, so it couldn’t have mites.” I find it intimidating to say anything.

What we know about Varroa collapse

Based on observations going back many years, beekeepers collectively know a lot about collapse due to Varroa. Some key points:

  • The number of mites in a colony increases as the bee population increases. But when the bee population begins to decrease in the fall, you are faced with more mites per bee. Likewise, when drone production stops, the mites move into the worker brood. This is the reason colony death from mites skyrockets in September, October, and November.
  • Large colonies support huge numbers of mites. When these colonies contract in preparation for winter, the number of mites in the hive is astronomical. Large colonies—even those that appear healthy—are often the first to fail due to the sheer number of mites.
  • Not only do the large ones fail, but they fail fast. Some say that a large colony can collapse within a week. This “here today, gone tomorrow” aspect is what leads beekeepers to think their hive absconded.
  • Oddly enough, sometimes smaller colonies do better against mites. Their smallness may have been caused by swarming, queen supersedure, or splitting, all of which produces a brood break sometime in the season, which means less brood was raised and fewer mites were produced.
  • Colonies that have collapsed from mites often leave behind honey, sometimes large amounts. This is especially obvious when the colonies collapse during cold months when predators are less likely to clean out the combs.
  • Colonies that collapsed from mites often leave behind some brood. This occurs because life in the hive was preceding normally until a large influx of mites took them down. Because it happens so fast, it can easily occur within the 21-day brood cycle. The result is a patch of brood in an otherwise empty hive.
  • The queen may be missing for a number of reasons. She may have been infected with viruses and died, or she may have starved, or she may have died of exposure because her work force is gone. Her body may have been removed from the hive or she could have fallen into the hive debris. A dead and shriveled queen is hard to spot in a pile of bee bodies.

Where the bees go has always puzzled me, but there have been many observations:

  • In the beginning, the live bees drag out as many bodies as possible. This is more obvious in poor weather when they leave them just outside the door. During warmer or drier days, they will fly them further away so the dead go unnoticed.
  • Sick bees will often fly out and die for the good of the colony. Many people have observed this behavior. On cursory inspection, the dying bees look fine, but they are not.
  • When the hive is sufficiently weakened, predators and scavengers may move in. This can give the appearance that they are the cause of the problem when, if fact, they are the result of it.
  • Sometimes bees have been seen to “abscond” but not in a coordinated way. Instead, individuals may flee from the colony and take up residence in a nearby hive. This drifting spreads mites to other colonies.

I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites. If I suggest any other cause of death, they are likely to accept it—or at least consider it. But mention mites, and the answer is usually a resounding “No way!” A stigma associated with mites suggests that you are somehow lacking in ability as a beekeeper if you lose a battle with Varroa mites.

Another common misconception is that mites are easily visible by the beekeeper. In fact, mites make a point of hiding from view. They spend a lot of time beneath capped brood cells and are rarely seen on adult bees. Even if phoretic mites are present on the adults, they can can remain partially concealed between segments.

Whatever the reason for dismissing the mite problem, it’s sad because by denying the evidence we preclude an opportunity to learn and improve. Like most conundrums, the more you know, the more successful you will be.

What to look for

I would prefer you didn’t take my word for it, but do a postmortem on the hive that you suspected of absconding. The first clues to death by Varroa are listed above, that is, a suddenly empty hive that still contains honey and a patch of brood. But if you want more evidence, here are some other things to look for:

  • Look for guanine deposits inside the brood cells. These are white, crystalline patches that adhere to the top of the cell. Randy Oliver at Scientific Beekeeping has a nice description.
  • If there is capped brood, open the cells, pull out the pupae and look for varroa mites.
  • Sift through the debris on the bottom board and search for dead mites.

While honey bees will abscond on occasion, it is rare, especially in races of the European honey bee such as Apis mellifera ligustica and A.m.carnica. Before chalking up your lost colony to something that rarely happens, do a thorough postmortem on your empty hive and keep an open mind.


Asconding-colony-2 under hive stand
This colony left the hive (above) that was full of yellowjackets. The cluster is small because many had been killed by the wasps. © Rusty Burlew.
Absconding-colony-1 hanging from hive stand
Once I relocated the colony into a new hive, I found that the queen was with them. No living bees remained in the hive, only parts of dead ones and ravaged combs. © Rusty Burlew.