Smokers are likely one of the most important tools that a beekeeper should have with them. A smoker has two main purposes. Primarily a smoker will encourage bees to engorge on honey. Encouraging honey engorging is beneficial as bees with stomachs filled with honey (or nectar) are unable to easily sting. The exact reasoning for this engorging behavior is unknown, though it likely evolved as a means of saving as much of the viable hive products by moving them in the case of a forest fire. Secondly the smoke produced from a smoker can mask scents and pheromones. Most importantly it hides the alarm scent administered by guard bees and the alarm scent present during a sting.
Lighting a Smoker
- Open the smoker and clear it of any debris.
- Insert a loosely crumbled piece of newspaper or similar kindling. If necessary push it to the bottom of the smoker with your hive tool.
- With a long nosed lighter or long match ignite the kindling.
- Be sure the kindling is sufficiently in flame with a few long slow bellows pumps.
- Slowly add your larger kindling or smoker fuel and pump the bellows to ignite. If necessary, stoke the fire with your hive tool.
- After the kindling is properly on fire, which may take 5 or 10 minutes, begin slowly adding your smoker fuel.
- Continue pumping the bellows as you add fuel no more than 2/3 the maximum capacity of the smoker. Over filling the smoker only insures that you will spit ash and ember as you work the hive.
- Proper smoker fuels
- burlap rags, cotton rags, cotton string or twine
- Woodchips, pine needles, twigs, sticks, dried leaves and grass
- Stove pellets
- Charcoal (burns long and hot, may be best to use with other fuel)
- Improper smoker fuels
- poison ivy, poison sumac, etc
- insulation material
- plastic or rubber
- newspaper (as sole fuel source)
- greasy rags
Selecting a Smoker
Smokers commonly come in tin and stainless steel varieties in the sizes of 4x7 inches, 4x10 inches. Often options such as shields, finger guards and bellow material are also available. As a rule, steel smokers last longer than tin when well cared for. Shields and finger guards are not necessary, though they do tend to be helpful in preventing minor burns. Guarded smokers often also have a hook to allow the smoker to be hung from an open hive. Bellow material also does not matter much, most commonly there are options for leather and wood or plastic and rubber, both function the same, the rubber is simply less authentic.
When purchasing a smoker buy the largest you can afford, preferably made of steel. Smaller smokers by virtue of their size have a smaller reservoir and thereby don’t burn as long or with as much smoke as their larger cousins.
- Steel smokers can occasionally be scoured with steel wool to remove cooked on soot and tar. If you would prefer you can also clean a smoker with a torch by simply burning the stuck on tar until it becomes ash.
- If a bee stings you or your gear apply a liberal amount of smoke to the area (after removing the stinger) to mask the alarm odor.
- Practice with a smoker before actually needing to use it, you will appreciate the ability to create a large masking cloud of smoke for a quick get away when things become difficult.
- By placing a properly sized, heavily perforated tin can, such as one which soup or fruit comes in, in side the smoker you can create a nice fire pan. The perforations allow for better air intake and easier lighting.