The smoker is one of the two key tools that is needed for beekeeping (the other is a hive tool, which is a lever to enable scraping and the removal of frames). The basic purpose of the smoker is to blow smoke into the beehive before an inspection or while you are manipulating the hive. Smoke calms the bees and makes them less likely to sting.
Smoking bees works in two ways. First, it changes the behavior of the guard bees. Normally, when the hive is threatened, they release a pheromone into the hive that alerts the older bees with more venom to attack the intruder. By blowing smoke into the hive, the guard bees basically fail to sound the alarm.
Second, other bees that sense the smoke believe the hive may be at risk of being burned down, so they start consuming honey in readiness for flight.
Choosing a Smoker
Most guides recommend that you buy the best smoker that you can afford and one that is large enough so that it does not run out while you are in the middle of manipulating your hive. Make sure that the bellows are made of good material and also look for one with a protective grid so that you don’t burn your hands on the firebox.
Lighting the Smoker
This needs to be done before you approach the beehives. What you need is a solid fuel that lights easily and smolders. Common fuels include corrugated paper, egg boxes, sacking, fir cones, or dried grass. Just make sure that whatever you do choose does not contain anything that might harm the bees.
Ron Brown, in his book, Beekeeping – A Seasonal Guide, recommends making a cartridge for the smoker. Roll “some old sacking or hessian plus dried rotten wood or wood shavings into a Swiss Roll of corrugated cardboard.” Check that the roll will fit into your firebox cylinder. It needs to be a loose fit. Then twist a thin wire around to hold it in place. Next, make up a weak solution of saltpeter, add some red ink and pour into a saucer. Dip one end of the cartridge into it for a few seconds and allow it to dry for 24 hours. The red end will not smolder easily if touched with a match.
Before you light your smoker, make sure that it is empty of ash from previous uses. To get the flames started you can light a small ball of newspaper or you can use an electric firelighter of the type that people use for a gas hob.
If you are using matches and a small ball of newspaper, you light this outside the smoker and then drop it in carefully and add kindling, such as wood shavings or grass, and then more fuel on top. As fires burn upwards, you want the fire to be at the bottom of the smoker.
If you are using an electric firelighter you will be able to aim the flame at the bottom of your fuel and probably do not require kindling. Make sure that you do not pack the fuel in too tightly though as this may cause the fire to go out.
Once the fuel is lit, close the top of the firebox and use the bellows to release some puffs of smoke. Now it is time to put on your gloves and veil.
Judging the right amount of fuel and how tightly to pack it into the smoker is an art that new beekeepers will quickly master. If your smoker goes out and there is no fuel left in it when you open it up, this may be because you packed the fuel in too loosely so that it burned very quickly or because you did not put enough fuel in. If it goes out and there is fuel left in the firebox, this suggests you packed it too tightly or that it was not burning properly at the start.
Before approaching the hive, check that the fuel is still alight by pumping the bellows. During your inspection of the hives, you may want to periodically check that you still have smoke in the same way.
Using the smoker
When you have reached the hive, you should gently smoke the entrance. Do not puff the smoke directly into the hive but allow it to drift in. It takes about two minutes for smoking to work in terms of dulling the bees fight tendencies and encouraging their flight tendencies.
New beekeepers are recommended to smoke more than once. More experienced beekeepers may choose not to smoke the entrance but instead to waft some smoke under the crown board as they open up the hive. This saves time and is usually just as effective. It also helps to push the queen lower in the hive.
Even so, beekeepers should keep an eye on the entrance in case the colony starts to leave; a puff of smoke will encourage them back in.
You can use the smoker when you are inspecting frames and the bees start to appear agitated. Be careful not to smoke the bees directly. While smokers are designed to produce a cool smoke, a direct hit will be unpleasant for the bees.
Be careful when you put the smoker down and pick it up – the firebox will be hot.
Putting the smoker out is easily done by blocking the opening of the firebox. Grab a handful of longer grass and press it in so that no air can reach the flames. Or you can use a cork.
Remember to leave the smoker outside until it has extinguished. It has been known for bee smokers to cause property damage due to fire as the firebox can be extremely hot.