Beekeepers have embarrassing secrets. I too have a deep dark beekeeping secret. I am useless at using a smoker! Using a smoker is an essential skill for any beekeeper. You’ve seen them, the iconic pictures of beekeepers wielding a smoker with slow, focused Tai Chi movements gently wafting smoke to calm their bees. Their bees are the epitome of serenity and charm scurrying around the top of the frames not bothered at all with the beekeeper’s examination of their busy life in the hive.
No one really warns you about the truth, about just how difficult it is. If you haven’t tried to light a smoker and you and like a challenge you are going to have to take this on.
Fueling the fire
Choosing the fuel to use is the first conundrum that still has me scratching my head. I’ve tried:
- Cardboard pieces
- Cylinders of rolled up cardboard
- Pine needles
- Dried grass clippings
- Laurel eaves
- Lavender pellets
- Lavender flowers
- Old baling twine
The old twine recycled from bailing hay was donated by my mentor who has kept a stash of it for eons. This hessian twine is not even made for use here anymore so a slight guilt niggles me as I wonder should I be preserving the twine as an historical artefact instead of burning it! .
Getting armed up and dangerous
Arriving at an apiary I heft on my bee suit and wellies. That in itself is not as easy as you may think. I usually end up having to hop around one footed trying to get a leg into the leg, as opposed to the arm, of the big suit while trying to avoid stepping on sharp gravel, thistles, mud or worse, a cow pad! As for wellies, why is it that the tops flop down instead of standing to attention? Flopping welly tops forces me to twist my ankle awkwardly as I wriggle in my foot while hoping I don’t lose my balance and that no one is watching. Who needs yoga poses? My core muscles and balance have improved immensely since taking up beekeeping.
At last, it’s time to light the smoker. To tame this beast I have tried:
- Small standard cigarette lighter
- Crème brulee torch,
- Weed killer flame thrower – a cheap purchase
- A small gas torch
A butane torch is on my shopping list but I’m afraid to say this too loudly in case my smoker will laugh at me.
So far, I have had the best success with the week-killer flame thrower until it fell apart in my hands melting my glove.
Getting down to business
I drop in some the fuel chosen for today’s adventure into the bottom of the smoker and light it. Sometimes it takes a bit of convincing to get it started and if I’ve kept the fuel in the shed instead of the house, it’s damp and no convincing will light it. Finally, nurtured and pampered the smoker responds and billows of smoke rise gloriously. It’s usually then that I find out which way the wind is blowing as I cough, splutter and nearly choke on the smoke. I quickly add more fuel, puff the bellows like mad and close the lid. Finally! Success! The smoker is lighting. I quickly zip up my bee suit and pick up the rest of the gear needed for operations, hive tool, extra box, frames etc. But… by the time I get to the hive the smoker is emitting a feeble trail of smoke and I see bees giving a cynical glance over at me on their way into the hive not at all impressed. I backtrack and start again, this time the smoker is hot so I have to be careful not to burn myself or anything around me as I take out the bits of pine needles/straw/carboard etc from the top to try and light the fuel on the bottom again.
I eventually have some success and get down to the real business of inspecting my hives.
Some of my hives have nice quiet bees and I don’t have to use too much smoke thankfully, but this year I’ve noticed all the hives were a little tetchy. I wonder was it the weather or was it me. There is one hive that every time I open it the bees well up for attack. And attack they do. This is on my mentor’s farm, I think re-queening is in order, he is reluctant to re-queen them but I threaten to do so every year and he wins every time, I have to bow to experience. I do wonder though if my technique for smoking has something to do with the crankiness of the bees and not anything to do with the queen. I use oodles of smoke on this hive – once bitten twice shy – but I’ve recently discovered that too much smoke torments bees. I kinda noticed that myself, puffing a smoker at attacking bees does not do any good. Closing up the and retreating is the best defense.
It’s high time I did this properly so, I’ve done some online research. First getting down to brass tacks, just how does smoke subdue bees? Science Focus – the home of BBC science focus magazine has the answer
“When honey bees become alarmed (usually in response to a perceived threat to the hive) they emit the strong-smelling pheromones isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone. These compounds stimulate an alarm response in other bees, which in turn produce similar pheromones, so that soon all the bees are in a state of alarm, and ready to attack anything that appears to be an intruder. Smoke acts by interfering with the bees’ sense of smell, so that they can no longer detect low concentrations of the pheromones. “
Does Smoke Harm Bees? Honest Beekeeper has the answer
“Bee smokers are only harmful if beekeepers use them inappropriately. Here are some common mistakes that beekeepers do when using a smoker”
- Dispersing hot smoke,
- Making too much smoke.
- Opening the hive too soon after smoking
Oh dear, I’ve done all of them! Honest Beekeeper explains it better than I every could.
How to videos:
Warning, they make it look easy. Oh, and never have your vail/bee suit hood up when lighting a smoker.
Light a Bee Hive Smoker – Novice Beekeeping (pine needles) 2.57 mins
Light a smoker in 60 seconds (dried grass) 1.17 mins
How to light a smoker that stays lit (wood shavings) 4.52 mins
Lighting a smoker (wood chips) 3.50 mins
Lighting a smoker first time (dried grass) 10.38 mins
Lighting a smoker that stays lit (wood chips) 2.10 mins
So, now. All I have to do is practice, practice, practice and experiment with fuel types… when I am no where near my hives. I have all winter. I think I’ll need it!