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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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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

Comments

Peter
Reply

Hi Rusty

Very nice article regarding the use of smoke, I totally agree with your approach.

I recently coached a new hobbyist beekeeper who was wondering why his bees were so much more aggressive than mine. My first question to him was regarding the amount of smoke he used. Knowing that his wife is a conservationist I was almost expecting that he was trying to work with the bees without smoke, but the reality was totally the opposite. He was using smoke constantly and battling to handle the frames between using the smoker.

Since he started using smoke more on an ‘as and when required’ basis, he is far more relaxed with his bees.

My approach is quite simple. I will pre-smoke a couple of swarms before I start working. Another smoke when opening the hive, then just stand the smoker upwind of the hive and only touch it again when needed. Very often when I want, it has burned out or simply died due to lack of air flow.

While smoking the bees gets them moving, and too many then take flight in a defensive/attack state rather than merely returning to their homes. I have found it better to rather gently shake bees off a frame and directly into the hive as apposed to smoking them out the way. The majority of the bees descend into the hive almost immediately rather than taking to the wing. Obviously when you have an inch thick layer of bees over a brood chamber when wanting to replace the super, then smoke becomes an option.

In terms of materials, I have usually used hessian because it lasts a decent amount of time (usually), but I’m leaning toward pine needles at the moment, it’s free and seems to work very well. I’ve tried cardboard, cotton waste and a couple of other smoke sources, all of which didn’t impress me at all.

Regards

Peter

Rusty
Reply

Peter,

I’m always interested in what people burn. It seems very local, just as beekeeping is local. I’ve been using baling twine for quite a while and I like it, but my supply is running low and nowadays they treat it with chemicals. The plain stuff is hard to find. Fir needles might work; I have lots of those.

Craig
Reply

Rusty,

One argument I’ve heard in favor of sugar water is that it’s supposed to get the bees to groom each other, which should dislodge some varroa, as an added bonus. I have no idea but it sounds logical on the surface.

As for smoker fuel, have you tried rolled up corrugated cardboard?

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

I haven’t used much corrugated; I don’t know what they use to glue it together.

Eddy Radar
Reply

Never use it, no need to with my bees.
I’ve tried it, but I can’t manage keeping it lit with gloves on, which I wear. Always!

Rusty
Reply

Eddy,

You could always use the smoker and lose the gloves!

Mac Harper
Reply

I use dried, rotten wood. Maple seems to be best; oak produces a really acrid smoke which makes my eyes water. I use pine needles if running out of wood. After a couple of puffs where needed, I leave the smoker on the ground upwind of the hives. If the bees are defensive or aggressive, I smoke the gloves, too. My bees are gentle enough (or I’m lucky enough) so I can usually work them in short sleeves, short pants, and a veil. Cooler!

Rusty
Reply

Mac,

Good tips! Thank you.

Shari
Reply

In Southern Oregon, a lot of us use pine or fir needles. They seem to work well. I also use the trimmings from my lavender and rosemary bushes. The smoke smells nicer.

Brenda
Reply

I’m a new beekeeper, so have no right to comment really. But I’m fascinated by this issue. The beekeepers I know in Maine seem to prefer pine needles and sumac berries (which are supposed to have some anti-varroa effect). My pine needles, however, produced a really harsh, nasty smelling smoke. So, I have been using dried pulp wood (like Mac), sumac berries, and lavender trimmings (like Shari). Smells delightful and works beautifully. Is there research on how bees react to different smoke sources? Smoke smells have different effects on people, so you would think that bees would likewise react differently to different smoke material.

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

There has been a lot of research on different smoke sources and their affect on bees and mites. I remember reading some of it maybe 6 or 7 years ago, but I don’t know where to find it at the moment.

Paul Packbier
Reply

Not everyone uses coconut husks?! 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll go out back and pick some.

Richard anstis
Reply

Smoking your gloves….I particularly like that one.

Rosemary
Reply

I have lots of pine needles from mostly white pine trees in the Adirondacks. They do leave a coating on the smoker which can get gunky. Typically I get a good smoke going, and then it is out before long, needing restarting. Got a great video on starting and keeping the smoker going?

Also can you explain more about the “quilt” you use for winter months. Have seen and used tar paper, insulation materials, a sleeve or cover which slides on, hay bales underneath…etc. What would be best for the NE winters? Thank you!

JoAnne
Reply

There was research published in a beekeeping magazine many years ago that a friend shared with me. It tested for cool, non-toxic, and long-burning smoke as the traits most important for the health of the bees and convenience for the beekeeper. The best (in order of preference) were Sumac seed heads, wood shavings, pine needles, corn cobs, and dried cow pies. Cardboard was toward the bottom of the list (less desirable) along with pine cones, treated card twine, treated burlap. I have been using corn cobs because there is a good free supply at one of my bee-yards, but I am eyeing the sumac seed heads that are now forming on the roadside sumac plantings.

Rusty
Reply

JoAnne,

I remember sumac from back east but I don’t think it grows here, although I could be wrong about that. I would try it if I could find it.

Jodi
Reply

Thanks for all the tips! I’m pretty new at this and have learned tons from reading your blogs. The comments have given me even more info! I tend to smoke when I have to be especially intrusive. Since I use my golf cart for chores with my horses, I grab a couple handfuls of the loose hay that is always in the cart for my smoker. It doesn’t always last very long, but it’s free and plentiful.

I have a swarm that has moved under my house. I’m going to attempt to move them. Do you think smoking them will help? Any tips? I’m more nervous about having to go under the house, into the chain-wall area than actually dealing with the bees.

Rusty
Reply

Jodi,

Yes, I think it would help. If the area is tight and you haven’t much room to work, you’ll want the bees as calm as possible. Be careful of fire, however. You don’t want to leave any embers under the house.

I would just cut the combs free and put them in a box or bucket. Once outside, you can tie the combs into frames using string or rubber bands. It will be a hard job, but just do one thing at a time, and you will get there. If you happen to see the queen, put her in a cage so she doesn’t get injured in the move.

Anne Fifer
Reply

I’ve tried pine needles, but the smoke seems really acrid to me. My favorite is cedar shavings–they light easily, and once you get them packed down a bit the smoker keeps going well. It’s a very pleasant, cool smoke.

Have you ever tried the liquid smoke–food quality–I got some from Brushy Mountain. I’ve used it a couple times in sort of emergency situations when I needed to get into a hive when it was very windy. It seemed to work well, but I certainly would use that on comb supers either.

Thanks for a great discussion.

Rusty
Reply

Anne,

No, I never tried the liquid smoke. Sounds interesting.

krysa
Reply

thx

Yvonne
Reply

My husband asked a question regarding the massive deaths of bees – how do we know exactly what is causing this and, could it be the smoke that bee keepers use that could be killing the bees?

Rusty
Reply

Yvonne,

We know the causes of most colony deaths and it is varroa mites and the viral diseases they transmit. Beekeepers and honey hunters going back thousands of years have been using smoke and it doesn’t hurt the bees. There are also many beekeepers that don’t use smoke, but they still have colony deaths.

KAJ Arolu Honey
Reply

I Really Don’t Have Interest In Liquid Spray As An Alternative To Smoking, Not Until We Discuss About It With My Fellow Beekeepers’ On 12 April 2017 At Nigerian Formal President Chief Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo’s Top Hill Estate, Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria.

Melissa
Reply

I got stung thru my glove. (And it hurt, lol) just replacing syrup inside hive last week (September) I have been followed by a guard bee leaving hive as well. I use pine needles in the smoker, which I never use just to refill syrup. I’ve read in a book by Les Crowder, creosote bush has been used and shown to have a good effect on varroa mite. Of course, I need to live in southwest for that, I think. :/

Sid Kemp
Reply

Thanks, this is very helpful to us as new beekeepers. Could you write more – maybe even a full post – about how much smoke to use? I’ve seen YouTube videos where beekeepers drenched the hive in smoke. The keeper who set up our hive just used two light puffs when he took off the lid, and went ahead with a full hive inspection without any more smoke. So far, we’ve used very little, and our bees have been very mellow. But the extremes I’ve seen in videos are confusing, and I’d like to hear more about this.

Thanks so much.

Rusty
Reply

Sid,

I made a note to write about smoke. For now I will say that a lot people run their entire lives under the theory that, “If some is good, more is better.” But I don’t believe it. Rather, I believe “As much as necessary but as little as possible.” If you give a couple short puffs of smoke and wait a couple of minutes, it works just fine. The thing people don’t do is wait. If you look at your watch and wait two minutes, it seems like an eternity. But that’s the secret. Use too much smoke, and the bees get riled up again.

Sid Kemp
Reply

Awesome, thank you. Your site has become my wife’s favorite. (She is the primary beekeeper.) And I like your universal wisdom applied locally. You agree with Einstein’s dictum that an explanation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. And as for not being able to wait two minutes, that may be our society’s biggest problem.

It has been a challenge and pleasure to wait weeks to see if our new queen was laying and if new young bees were beginning to forage.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Sid.

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