The smoker is an essential tool for the beekeeper. The kind of kindling you use in your smoker will make lighting your smoker easier and keep it lit, preventing you from having to add more fuel every 10 minutes.
You also want to put out your smoker safely so you don't start a fire. This might seem obvious, but I can't tell you how many times someone has told me that they put their lit smoker in the back of their truck. There's a fire in there!
Photo: Lit smoker hanging on side of hive body
Kindling for Your Smoker
The first thing you'll need is kindling for your smoker. Usually you want a material that burns quickly to get the flame going and then add something a little more substantial, that burns slower, to keep the fire lit for an extended period of time. I like to use paper egg cartons to get my smoker started, but a ball of newspaper or dryer lint works well too.
Once you have a little flame in your smoker, then you can add something heavier. Here at our farm, we use the bark from the Ohia tree. It smells nice, there's a lot of it near our beehives and the tree naturally sheds its bark so it's already on the ground and we're not harming the tree. Other options for kindling are pine needles, hay, tree bark, and grass clippings.
Burlap is another common item used in a smoker. If you use burlap, I've found that I don't need to start the fire with paper. Cut the burlap into strips and keep adding as needed. I've used burlap in the past and am not a fan of using it because I have found that the flame is a little too hot for my liking. However some beekeepers love using it, so if you have some laying around, maybe give it a try.
Whatever you use, make sure it's not toxic to burn.
For example, the Brazilian Pepper tree grows near us and it's highly invasive so there's a lot of it everywhere, but its also toxic to burn.
How much kindling you put into your smoker depends on how long you need it to stay lit. If you'll be with the bees for awhile, say over a hour, fill the smoker completely.
How to Light a Smoker
- Light your ball of newspaper or other type of fast, burning kindling and put it in the smoker.
- Billow the smoker until the kindling is lit and there is a small flame.
- Grab your heavier kindling and add to the smoker in small amounts. Continue to billow as you do this ensuring that the flame isn't going out, but getting larger and igniting the heavier kindling.
- Continue to billow the smoker until the heavier kindling is burning and stays lit.
- Use smoker as needed. Try to billow your smoker, even if you don't need any smoke, at least every 10 minutes so that the fire doesn't go out. If you notice the amount of smoke coming out of the smoker has decreased, check to see if you need to add more kindling. It's a lot easier to add more kindling than to start the smoker all over again.
For more detailed instructions on how to light your smoker, see the video below.
How to Safely Put Out a Smoker
Option 1 - Empty the contents of your smoker in a safe spot where nothing can catch on fire (such as a fire pit) and douse it with a lot of water.
Option 2 - Plug up your smoker to prevent oxygen from getting inside. You can use a wine cork, a handful of wet green grass or a stick (the stick has to be just the right size to plug up the spout). Put this object into the smoker's spout to prevent smoke from getting out and oxygen from getting in. Lay the smoker on its side on a non flammable, flat spot such as a large area of gravel or cement.
- Do not leave a lit smoker on your beehive or anywhere it could fall over and open up.
- Do not leave a smoker in an enclosed space such as your garage, shed, barn, house or inside your car.
- Do not put a lit smoker in the bed of your truck.
You might not find it necessary to use a smoker every time you open your beehive, but it's good to have one lit and ready before you open the hive, especially your first year with the bees. The smoke doesn't harm the bees, it, actually, does the opposite.
How to Smoke a Beehive
- Billow the smoker gently, allowing a light amount of smoke to go inside the front entrance of the beehive.
- Remove the lid to the beehive. If you see bees looking up at you, lightly smoke the top of the hive where the lid once was. This encourages these guard bees to go down within the hive as opposed to flying up at you.
- If there are bees that still seem bothered by your presence (for example, if their buzzing gets louder or if bees are flying at you or trying to sting you), billow more smoke onto the tops of the frames and into the hive.
- Once the bees seem calm and there are no bees flying at you, gently begin to remove frames from the hive bodies to inspect. Puff smoke inside the hive and above the area where there are bees you want to get out of the way. Do not billow smoke onto the bees. You're not trying to smoke the bees, but add smoke to the area around the bees.
Why the Beekeeper Uses Smoke
Bees use pheromones to communicate. One important pheromone is the alarm pheromone. When the beekeeper opens a beehive, they try their best to disturb the hive as little as possible. However, sometimes a bee, often times a guard bee, does not like the beekeeper's presence and will release an alarm pheromone.
When an alarm pheromone is released, some of the bees in the hive will stop the job they are doing to help the guard bee protect the hive. This is often in the form of stinging the beekeeper or flying at their veil.
Smoke can mask this alarm pheromone which means fewer bees are bothered by the beekeeper and the beekeeper is bothered by fewer bees.
Beekeepers and entomologists argue over how long it takes a hive to recover from an inspection by the beekeeper. However, the one thing we can all agree on is that the less you disturb the hive, the better it is for both the bees and the beekeeper.
There may be a time when you need to heavily smoke a hive such as when you are moving a beehive. In this situation, you use the smoker to simulate a forest fire. The bees will begin to gorge themselves on honey, thinking they will have to evacuate and start a home somewhere else. When this happens, the bees are distracted and full of honey, making them less likely to care about what you're doing or want to sting you. This situation is one that should rarely, if ever, happen when working with the bees. Most times, you're using a light amount of smoke. However, keep in mind that this may be necessary in extreme situations.
Learn more tricks and tips for how the beekeeper avoids getting stung in our blog post about getting stung.
Looking to Buy a Smoker?
I don't receive payment from any of the products we endorse. They're just ones that I like to use.
Stainless steel smokers are strongly recommended and smokers with a larger fuel capacity are best if you have over 5 hives.
If you want to splurge, this smoker from dadant is nice because it has a larger fuel capacity which is helpful if you have over 5 beehives and want your smoker to stay lit longer.
Otherwise, the $15 smoker will work just fine. Some have bars on the outside. This is to prevent you from burning yourself. I've never had this issue, but is something to consider especially if your kids help you with your bees.
Check out our category all about beekeeping equipment.
If you haven't yet, download our free guide, The 7 Steps to Getting Started Keeping Bees.
It's short, but all the beginner advice I wish someone told me before I got started keeping bees.
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