Smoke has been used to calm bees since prehistoric times. It is not exactly clear when this practice started, but bee-smoking has long been used to help collect honey in the wild. Early uses of smoke being used in beekeeping would probably have been similar to the death-defying antics of Nepalese honey-hunters, which was documented by a photographer on National Geographic recently. Needless to say, it makes modern day beekeeping look very tame!
Before we look at the best fuels, it’s important to better understand why smoke is used in beekeeping in the first place.
Understanding the “alarm” pheromone
It is thought that the use of smoke initiates 2 main behavioural responses in bees. Firstly the smoke imitates an approaching fire and sets of a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to the fire. Basically, the bees are too busy eating to worry about the intruder opening their hives.
Secondly, the use of smoke can mask the “alarm” pheromone bees produce when disturbed. When a hive is disturbed the individual guard bees will emit the "alarm" pheromone and fan their wings to disperse this message to the colony. This pheromone alerts the colony to a threat and other bees will come out and join the defense of the hive.
When a bees stings, high concentrations of the pheromone are deposited with the stinger and venom sac at the sting site. This incites other workers to join in the attack and sting close to the stinger which is emitting the pheromone.
The History of the Smoker
The use of smokers and bee smoking fuel has evolved over time. The smoker, which is largely unchanged since it’s invention is 1873 is the quickest way to inspect and manage a beehive safely but are you really using the most effective bee smoker fuel for the job?
Let’s take a look at some of the most common options for bee smoker fuel…
Pine Needles – Pine needles are completely free, easy to gather and one of the most popular options. They provide a thick dense smoke although they can also create unwanted sparks and ash, which makes them not the preferred option for some beekeepers. What’s more, the remnants of pine needles can clog up your smoker over time which means that you need to clean the device more often.
Hessian – Many commercial beekeepers like to use hessian for smoker fuel and this is certainly a cheap option. If you leave these bags outside, they also rot faster which means that they burn faster and better when it comes to the actual job.
Paper and Cardboard – Many paper or cardboard items contain traces of chemicals or glue. It may not be much but over time, this is certainly not the best for your health or the local environment.
Dried Leaves – No pine trees about? All beekeepers have been caught short of fuel at some point and dried leaves offer a reasonable short term solution once totally dry. Leaves and twigs should also burn fast, while leaving little residue in the smoker.
The Importance of Bee Smokers and Bee Smoker Fuel
Lucky for us beekeeping has moved on from torches and open fires but due to their effectiveness virtually every beekeeper around the world will use a smoker of some form when inspecting a beehive.
What bee smoker fuels do you use? Let us know in the comments!