Why Do Beekeepers Smoke Their Hives?

When it comes time to do a hive check or harvest honey, a smoker will help calm the bees and protect the beekeeper from stings.

by Dani Yokhna
PHOTO: reeway2007/flickr

If you’ve ever watched a beekeeper harvest honey, you’ve probably seen him use smoke to protect himself while he harvests. Have you ever wondered exactly why this is? The reasoning is fairly simple: Bees will sting hive trespassers in self-defense, and the smoke will help you stay sting-free and keep the bees safe at the same time.

The Role of Smoke

One of the main reasons to use smoke when harvesting honey is to interfere with the bees’ lines of communication.

“When bees get upset, they’ll produce what’s called an alarm pheromone,” says Don Shump, owner of the Philadelphia Bee Company and president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. “When other bees smell that, it makes them upset.”

That sense of smell is one of the main ways bees communicate. The alarm pheromone bees emit when they feel an imminent threat smells similar to banana oil, according to Shump. The colony is also similarly alerted when a bee stings you, increasing the likelihood you’ll get stung repeatedly in the same spot. If you do end up getting stung, make sure to wash your clothing before approaching the hive again, as bees will smell the pheromone left on your clothing on future visits.

Smoking bee colonies also makes bees less likely to sting because they go into survival mode, making you less of a concern to them. “When bees smell smoke on the colonies, it makes them think the hive is going to catch on fire,” Shump says. “Their natural reaction to this is to try and save as much honey as they can. If the hive is going to melt, they’re going to need to make a new one.”

When the smoke enters the hive, the bees begin storing up as much honey in their bodies as possible in preparation to build a new hive—it takes 8 pounds of honey to make a pound of wax, which they’ll need in the construction. Once they’re full, they’re less apt to sting; stinging you will cause them to die, meaning the honey won’t make it to their new home.

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The disruption caused by the smoke is temporary, so it won’t hurt the long-term health of your colony. Once the smoke dissipates, bees recover their pheromone sensitivity within 10 to 20 minutes.

How to Smoke a Hive

The traditional smoker—a metal can with a hole on the bottom, with bellows attached and covered by a cone lid—is the preferred method used by modern beekeepers. To use one, first, you need to start a fire. Fill the smoker with fuel material, such as pet bedding, wood chips or shavings, dead pine needles, or untreated burlap, and light with a grill lighter. Take care not to overfill, adding just enough that it will create a nice smolder.

“Once we get a bit of a fire going, we’ll snuff out the open flame, and stuff more fuel on top of it,” Shump says. “We’ll try to get the cinders burning. You don’t want an open flame in your can because if you hit the bellows, they can become like flamethrowers, and you can melt the wings on the bees.”

Once you’re satisfied with the amount of heat and smoke being produced, return the lid to the smoker. Puff smoke around the hive using the tips below. When the smoker is not in use, keep it in a safe spot where it’s not likely to start a fire. Puff it occasionally to keep the embers burning. Once you’re finished with the smoker, extinguish it completely by dumping the fuel material in water.

Tips for Using a Smoker:

Smoking your hive shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. To get the job done safely and effectively, use these tips from the University of Kentucky.

  • Take slow steps as you approach the hive, and avoid sudden motions to reduce your chances of getting stung and to help maintain hive integrity.
  • When possible, work your hives when the temperature is above 70 degrees F, anywhere between the middle of the morning and the middle of the afternoon. This is when more bees are likely searching for pollen and not in or around the hive.
  • Approach the hive from the rear or sides to stay out of the bees’ flight path.
  • Insert the first two or three puffs of smoke at the entrance of the hive to clear out the remaining bees.
  • Use smoke in moderation. Too much will cause the bees to eat up more honey or drive them away from the hive.

Understanding how to properly smoke a hive will help make your beekeeping hobby more safe and efficient. And as you know, soon enough, you’ll be reaping the sweet benefits.

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