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Smoking Bees

If you closely observe your bees on a hot summer evening, you may find them hanging out on the porch smoking. After all, they’ve earned it, having visited hundreds of flowers earlier in the day. These are mainly the older foragers, although, occasionally you will see younger bees trying to join in.

The nurse bees get pretty upset at this activity, as they realize the health implications, but their complaints tend to fall on deaf ears.

But seriously. My friend Gary Reuter, from the University of Minnesota says, “It’s cruel to work bees without smoking them.” Meaning: if they sting you they will die, and that’s cruel.

It is thought that when bees smell smoke it makes them think there is a forest fire coming and they gorge on honey in anticipation of having to flee. Full bees tend to be a lot calmer.

A little smoke at the front and under the cover is a good start. As you work through your bees you will be able to tell if you need to add more smoke. Sometimes, if you have a breeze, you can set your smoker down, upwind and let it drift over the top of your stack.

Okay, here’s how I do it:

  • Approach from the back or side
  • Reach around and blast a few puffs in the front door
  • Be sure to bang your smoker on the front of the hive and say, “Possum coming, Possum coming!” This will make the queen run up
  • At the back of the hive, raise just the back of the outer cover and puff a little in here and then set it down
  • Wait 20 seconds and remove the outer cover
  • Puff again at the hole in the inner cover and then remove
  • Observe the bees and see what they’re doing, they’re probably looking at you
  • Begin working the hive and smoke across the top bars. If the bees are actively trying to kill you, smoke again

What to use in your smoker

I burn clean burlap in my smokers most of the time. I have also burned pine needles, old queen cages, dried grass and once, an old bee supply catalog that was under the seat of the truck. The whole point is not to put anything toxic into your smoker such as treated wood, oily rags or plastic. You are after a cool white smoke, not something like a burning tire.

I like burlap as it will light with a match and it lasts a while. Even when burning something else, it still makes a good starter. When you puff smoke at your bees make sure you are not shooting flames out of the end of your smoker, this can have an adverse effect on your bees. Also be sure not to over smoke them as this may make them more defensive and at minimum, will disturb your hive more.

No matter what you burn in your smoker, it will create creosote. When this builds up it can make it really hard to get the lid off your smoker. If you take a propane torch and heat up the lid, it will come off easily. The trick is to open your smoker while it’s still hot and to not seal it tightly. Cleaning it now and then is also an option.

So when I work my bees I always have a lit smoker with me. Allow your bees to tell you how much smoke to use. If they are calm, use less, if they are defensive, use more.

Does size matter?

Er, uh, hmm—yes it does. If you have anything more than about four hives I would suggest getting a jumbo smoker. There is nothing as frustrating as having your smoker run out of fuel when you have the lid off a hive of defensive bees. Be sure your smoker will last through the number of hives you intend to work. It can be hard to reload a smoker while you are dressed in gear and covered with bees.

Also I would spend a couple of extra bucks to get a shield. Shields allow you to set a hot smoker down without burning the surface you set it on. In addition a shield may save you from a nasty burn as the barrels of smokers get very hot.

Happy smoking!