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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Once the fire is burning lustily and flames are licking the insides of the fuel chamber, you can add larger fuel and more oxygen.
- 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