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.

Keeping bees after the summer solstice

The first day of summer has the longest daylight period of the year, but then—the very next day—the daylight hours begin to decrease. I always feel like the first day of summer is more like the last.

Of course, that’s just day length. The warmest part of the summer—at least here in the northern hemisphere—is yet to come. But the bees know the truth, and things within the hive are about to change.

The beekeeping year in two parts

In my own beekeeping practice, it helps me to think of the year in two parts. Colony expansion occurs from the winter solstice to the summer solstice, and colony contraction occurs from the summer solstice to the winter one. Now there is not a perfect correlation, and variations occur according to local climate and weather conditions. But still, as a general guideline it works well.

I used to think it was merely a matter of photoperiod, that the bees sensed the shortening of the daylight hours and began preparing for winter. Since then, I’ve read research that claims honey bees are not particularly sensitive to photoperiod, after all it is dark inside the hive all the time. But something is giving them a heads up, and in my experience the bee colony is very different in the contraction phase than in the expansion phase.

What was easy becomes difficult

For me, beekeeping during the expansion phase is easy. The colony is growing and seems to out-compete the mites. Nectar and pollen are stashed away. The hive gains weight. Supers are added. The bees are gentle as pet bunnies. Hive pests such as beetles and moths are kept neatly in check. During the expansion phase it is easy to think beekeeping is a walk in the park.

But after the summer solstice, a gradual change occurs. Egg laying decreases, slightly at first, but enough to cause the number of mites per bee to increase. A nectar dearth often accompanies the warm weather, causing robbing and increased defensiveness. Increased defensiveness means more stings, and summer heat means your bees are more apt to visit your neighbor’s swimming pool and pet bowls. Populations of predators such as yellowjackets, which start small in the spring, are building fast and may start bugging your bees. Although you can’t quite put your finger on it, your colonies are more troublesome than they were before. If it’s not one problem, it’s another.

Predicting behavior

Becoming aware of the subtle changes within your hive makes beekeeping more predictable and less bewildering. Awareness also helps you devise a management plan. It helps you decide what needs to be done. And when. And why.

For example, because I live in an area with a distinct dry season (little or no rain during July, August, and September), I usually remove my honey supers at the end of June. Then I turn my attention to mite monitoring and preparations for winter. I buy sugar on sale, repair moisture quilts, make candy boards, paint what needs it, and assess what I will do differently next year. I add robbing screens to weaker hives, make sure the bees have a good water source, and make a plan for mite management.

Experienced beekeepers are well aware of colony expansion and contraction, but it takes a while for a new beekeeper to understand the rhythm: the ebb and flow of bees, floral resources, and colony pests. If you are completely new to this and a little bit lost, try thinking of the year as a two-act play, and remember we are now beginning the second act.

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How can you make your bees…

How can you make your honey bees build comb, move up into the supers, store honey, raise brood? In other words, how can you make your bees do what you want them to do? The answer is you can’t, at least not without consequences. And the consequences are usually not good.

Managing honey bees is not like teaching a dog to roll over or coaxing a dolphin to jump through a hoop. Honey bees have their own agenda and you, the beekeeper, are not part of it. They are not going to learn from you; you have to learn from them. That is why good beekeepers evolve instead of emerging fully formed from the beekeeping supply store.

All is not as it appears

For example, many people want to know how to force their bees to store honey in the supers. Well, there are ways to coerce that behavior, some of which I’ve written about. But then, if the beekeeper says, “Now I can harvest honey because they put it in the supers!” he can easily end up starving his bees.

By forcing the bees to move into the supers prematurely, you may have prevented them from storing enough in the brood boxes. An unthinking beekeeper can easily make the mistake of not looking for winter stores before taking honey for himself and, later, wondering why his bees died.

The members of a honey bee colony communicate among themselves incessantly, and they know what needs to be done and when to do it. They respond to pheromones, the weather, the available forage, and dangers in the environment. They know about the seasons and they know things we don’t.

Working with the bees

A good beekeeper works with the bees, not against them. Any parent can tell you that you can’t force a child to learn, but you can encourage them to learn by providing them with a healthful environment and plenty of resources. Children learn best when they are healthy and given toys, drawing materials, and building blocks. Similarly, a honey bee colony is most productive in a healthful environment with plenty of resources, such as flowers for nectar and pollen, water, and a hive safe from predators and poisons.

If you give your bees the resources they need, they will do the things they are famous for—they will provide you with honey, beeswax, more bees, and pollination. The old saying about “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” applies here. You can provide the resources the bees need, and they will use them when they are ready. Impatience will get you nowhere.

I encourage beekeepers to think carefully before doing anything to a colony. Even if you’ve heard the same advice fifteen times, ask yourself how the bees will respond to your actions and what the results—both negative and positive—might be. Don’t do something that doesn’t make sense to you and don’t do something just because someone else did it. Doing nothing is usually the best alternative, especially if you don’t know the “why” behind it.

The reward for waiting

Even now, if I don’t immediately know what to do, I just wait. For example, last week I had to move a hive on a moment’s notice in the middle of the day while the foraging force was out. I knew the foragers would return to the old spot, so I put an empty hive there to shelter them until I decided how to “make” them reorient to the new hive location.

By next day I still hadn’t decided what to do but I added a frame of open brood to prevent laying workers. Then a week went by and I was too busy to mess with them, so I decided to add more open brood. When I opened the hive, I was rewarded with 18 gorgeous queen cells. Really. Enough to use, to divide, to give away as party favors. That settled it. My stragglers had turned into a new colony, and all because I was undecided about how to make them do something a week earlier.

By not being impulsive and by providing them with resources (a hive and open brood) they went ahead and did what honey bees do. It’s one of the great beauties of beekeeping—the bees will surprise you if only you will let them.

Honey Bee Suite

How important are sugar syrup ratios?

Although sugar syrup must be the simplest concoction in the history of man, it generates questions galore, many containing complex ratios, weights, and equations. When I make syrup, I simply dump some sugar in a bucket, add some lukewarm water till it looks right, and stir. When the crystals dissolve, I pour it in a feeder. Easy peasy and no math needed.

Why we feed syrup

We feed sugar syrup to honey bees in the spring to help new colonies get started, especially those that began as packaged bees. This feed gives them a leg up because instead of having to forage for a source of energy, they can eat at home and begin building a nursery right away. Colonies that barely survived the winter can also benefit from syrup.

In the fall, honey bees colonies that failed to store sufficient honey for winter (or were over-harvested) may be fed syrup in the hope they can make up the food deficit before cold weather arrives.

For generations, beekeepers have tried to help the bees along by tweaking the ratio of sugar to water in the syrup. For spring feed we try to simulate nectar by using a light syrup. In the fall we try to save the bees some work by feeding syrup with a much higher sugar content. A thicker syrup means the bees have to do less work to get it cured and capped.

Humans decided on the ratios, not bees

But here’s the catch: the sugar-to-water ratios we use are man-made conventions. The honey bees did not tell us what to provide, and they don’t carry mini hydrometers to test for specific gravity.

The sugar-to-water ratio in naturally-occurring nectar ranges from the impossibly low to super high. Honey bees prefer sweeter nectar, a preference which causes them to flock to things like apples, with nectar containing about 40% sugar, and avoid things like pears, with nectar containing about 15% sugar. But each plant has a different sugar content from every other plant, and even the weather, the time of day, and the age of the flower make a difference.

So while the honey bees are out foraging on every combination of sugar to water you could possibly imagine, well-intentioned beekeepers are home micromanaging their syrup, measuring and stirring and tweaking to arrive at some magical ratio that the bees don’t give a rip about. If they could roll their large compound eyes, they would.

Guidelines are not rules

I can certainly understand using a guideline like 1:1 or 2:1 as a place to start. Those ratios are easy to remember and palatable to the bees, so there is nothing wrong with using them. But we must remember they are guidelines, not laws the bees etched on stone tablets.

These guidelines are intended to produce a syrup that resembles an “average” nectar, but averages are often theoretical. I just read that the average American woman of childbearing age has 1.9 children. But how many women do you know with 1.9 children? Furthermore, how many average woman do you know with 1.9 children?

My point is that even if 1:1 syrup was an accurate mathematical average of all nectars, it would still not represent any particular nectar in the real world. So when people tell me they tossed their syrup because they added too much sugar, or spent all night trying to figure out how to measure the ingredients to make five gallons, it is my turn for eye rolling. Close is good enough. Even not so close is good enough.

So much to learn

Beekeeping is complex and I understand that, but I think it’s strange that I receive about four times as many sugar syrup questions as I do Varroa mite questions. While miscalculated syrup is meaningless to a colony, poorly managed Varroa can destroy it. Usually, by the time I get the mite question, the colony is already gone.

It makes me wonder what we as beekeepers, writers, speakers, and presenters are doing wrong. How can we help new beekeepers sort out what is important and what isn’t? I keep thinking that explaining why—and giving specific reasons and examples—will help, but I see mixed results. Any thoughts?


IR and hive maintenance: what glows?

After my last post, wherein I stated that only men sent me thermal images of their hives, I received the following images, all from women of course. But it turns out that IR (infrared) photography is more than pretty pictures; it can be a real asset for hive maintenance.

Once again, I present the photos in the order they were received, and the tale just gets curiouser and curiouser. Come follow the glow.

The first photo was from Debbe Krape, a beekeeper from Delaware who never fails to send me fascinating links and beekeeping stories. But Debbe’s email reminded me how often the English language trips me up.

In my post I wrote, “not once has a woman ever sent me a thermal image.” But what I meant was, no woman has ever taken a thermal image and sent it to me” so when I read Debbe’s email, I got the giggles. She wrote, “…Just so you have an infrared picture from a woman, although I have to admit it was taken of one of my hives by a male friend of a couple of days ago.”

My first thought was, “Where does this go? With the men or with the women?” Not that it matters, but it was a wake-up moment for me when I realized that what I wrote and what I meant were two different things.

Nevertheless, it’s a great photo. Debbe says, “The picture my friend took is wonderful: I felt like I was looking at the beating heart of an organism. Black plastic on 3 sides of our other hives interfered with the readings…and my husband didn’t want to disassemble more, but I would love confirmation that they’re okay given recent arctic temps.”

Submitted by Debbe Krape
Flir image of winter hive submitted by Debbe Krape.

The next photo was sent by Jennifer McComb of St Louis, Missouri. She writes, “Here’s a St Louis hive on a cold February day. A hive that’s giving off heat most likely has a living colony; it’s nice to see this at a glance.”

The photo shows a colony of bees that has migrated to the top of the hive after eating its way through the lower food supply. And look at the temperature below the cluster. Cold!

Flir image of February hive Jenny McComb
February hive in Missouri taken with Flir One for iPhone 5/5s.  © Jenny McComb

The last two photos, submitted by Judith Stanton of Maine, just bowled me over. Judith writes:

Once we got a really hard freeze going in January I was able to get thermal images of all my hives. One in particular puzzled me; two distinct clusters seemed to be co-existing in one hive. It eventually dawned on me that the smaller heat-generating source near the bottom could be a mouse or shrew.

Not long after we had one of those freakishly warm days, so I sent a few puffs of smoke into the entrance and soon two mice slithered out (while the bees buzzed in and out!). It was warm enough to break down the hive, replace 3 fouled frames, flip the bottom board and secure the entrance, leaving the colony rodent-free. So for me the value of the camera goes beyond ascertaining whether the bees are alive and their exact location.

Here is one of the thermal images showing the mouse presence…I have had both mouse and shrew problems in the past, so wasn’t sure which type of rodent might be the squatter. Also included a shot of the (thankfully limited) damage done by those meeces. The rest of the deep was chock full of honey and pollen, so I replaced the ruined frames and moved the box to the top of the hive.

Thermal image shows a mouse nest in the bee hive.
A mouse in the house! Judith was alerted by this thermal image that her hive contained squatters. On the first warm day, she was able to destroy the nest. © Judith Stanton.
Mouse damage Judith Stanton
Mouse nest in winter hive. © Judith Stanton.

Is that awesome or what? If that’s not an excuse for thermal imaging, I don’t know what is. That one image may have saved an entire colony. Well done, Judith!

Special thanks to Debbe Krape, Jenny McComb, and Judith Stanton for sharing their photos and stories.

Honey Bee Suite