A smoker is one of the most important tools for working a colony of bees. In fact, many beekeepers find the use of smoke on a hive to be essential, and no hive should be opened or examined without first smoking the bees.
Since ancient times, beekeepers have recognized the calming effects of smoke on bees during hive inspections and at other times when the bees might be disturbed. The scientific explanation for smoking bees was only determined in the 20th century, and in fact, it is still not completely understood. The general theory goes like this: Smoke blown from the nozzle is directed at the hive and between frames to encourage bees to gorge honey or nectar, a response to their instinctive fear of fire as they prepare for flight to a new home. When you smoke the beehive from top, you will most likely see all the bees move down the frames. A bee with a stomach full of honey is more docile (aren’t we all!) and finds it more difficult to bend her abdomen around in order to use her stinger and is much less inclined to sting than a bee that is not engorged.
Also, when the hive is first opened, guard bees–who are sensitive to hive manipulations–release an alarm pheromone to alert other bees. When many bees are releasing this pheromone, you can actually detect the odor (which smells like banana oil), especially if you open the hive in the winter (which is not such a good idea in general). The alarm pheromone causes the bees to react defensively to protect their home from intruders. If you direct a puff of smoke into the entrance of the hive, the smoke will mask the alarm pheromone bees release when disturbed, allowing the other bees to continue their routine hive duties rather than defending the hive.
Smoke can also be used to mask the alarm pheromone left after a beekeeper has been stung. Because the gland that releases the alarm pheromone is at the base of the sting, some of this pheromone marks the area where you are stung. Other bees that detect this signal may also stung the tagged area. Therefore, hands, clothing, and bee gloves that have been stung should also be smoked to mask the alarm odor.
The earliest smokers were simply torches. Other early beekeepers used to blow smoke from their pipes as they worked the hive. When Moses Quinby, the first commercial beekeeper in the United States, invented his smoker in the 1870s, beekeepers for the first time had a practical means to direct smoke where and when needed. The modern variation of the Quinby smoker consists of a bellows attached to a firebox (see photo above). The firebox is cylindrical with a grid inside to support the fuel and allow air to flow underneath and through the cylinder. The hinged lid opens to allow you to charge and light the smoker. With the lid closed, smoke emerges through the nozzle and can be directed as required. The bellows consist of two wooden plates, hinged at the bottom and held apart by a spring. Air exits the bellows through a small length of pipe fitted into a hole at the bottom of the plate facing the firebox, and then passes through an equivalent hole in the cylinder and into the firebox (see Noémie to the right expertly using the smoker during yesterday’s inspection of the McGill hive).
There is a definite art to lighting a smoker, a skill that a lot of us in the Collective still struggle with. The most important principle to remember when lighting a smoker is to have the flame below the fuel, not above it. As you puff the bellows, air enters the flame, pushing the flame upwards into fresh fuel. Acceptable smoker fuels include pine straw, ground corn cob, pelleted wood shavings, or dried cow manure. At the Collective, we use pieces of torn burlap. To light the smoker, we ignite a few small pieces of burlap, drop it in the smoker, and puff constantly to produce a brisk flame. The objective is a cool dense smoke. One challenge we have at the Collective is that the smoker tends to run out of fuel at inopportune times, such as when the bees start to get a bit more agitated. We often have to stop and add another handful of burlap, then another, until it’s ready to go again.
There is a fine balance to the amount that one should smoke, which has been a topic of conversation in the Collective. A few periodic puffs of smoke will help keep the bees under control, but too much smoke is not so great for the bees. If bees are oversmoked, they can become more agitated and the queen can temporarily stop laying, setting the hive back a few days. Also, too much smoke can lead to smoky tasting honey.