Before there were beekeepers, honey was sought out by honey hunters.
(Uhh, can we just take a moment to appreciate how badass that name is? I think we should all just start calling ourselves that until it catches on again.)
The honey hunter’s primary method of collecting wild honey was to start a smoky fire near the entrance to a hive. This was done in the brush at the base of a honey tree or with pots of embers that would be fanned near hives in rock crevices.
The point here is that even 40,000 years ago people knew that smoke was the best way to get access to a bee hive and its rich contents. This eventually evolved into the one of the most essential tools in a beekeeper’s arsenal – the bee smoker.
Why smoke works
Simply put, smoke is used to make bees think their hive is on fire. While this may seem like a cruel joke, it’s extremely effective. Like any other creature with a will to survive, bees know that if there’s fire—even if it is a false alarm—they need to hightail it out of wherever they are.
Ancient honey hunters would collect the honey once they felt enough of the bees were driven from the hive.
As bees were domesticated, beekeepers discovered that smoke also made bees gorge themselves on honey to prepare for their imminent flight to find a new home. This gorging made the bees lethargic and easier to work with. Scientific studies have revealed that smoke even interferes with the pheromones that guard bees use to signal when the hive is under attack. By blocking these chemical messages, the bees don’t get riled up into alarm mode.
A bit of history
Some still recall old-timers working their bee hives with a lit cigar between their lips. A rudimentary smoker that probably was not all that healthy for the bees or the beekeeper. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the original design of a bee smoker was created by Moses Quinby, one of the first commercial beekeepers in New York. His simple design of a canister with an attached bellows was later adjusted and patented by T. F. Bingham. It has been modified over time, but the basic premise remains the same. Today, smokers come in a variety sizes, but most stick to the hot-blast system first used by Quinby.
How bee smokers work
Basically, a smoker needs a fire chamber and a source of air flow. In a hot-blast system, the air flow comes in at the bottom of the chamber and moves up through the fire and out the top. Canisters are usually 7 inches (18 cm) with a conical hinged top that allows you to fill it with fuel. Attached on the side is a bellows (a.k.a air pump) that pushes air into the fire canister. Some of these will have a metal plate with holes about an inch (2.5 cm) off the bottom, to allow air to get in under the fuel and prevent blocking the air flow from the bellows.
Many believe the key to a good smoker is the fuel you use. Of course, if you ask 10 beekeepers what best fuel is, you may get 10 different answers! My theory is that the best fuel is often free. Most free fuel sources can be found in the woods or around the farm. Wood shavings, pine needles, dry leaves, straw and punky wood all work well and are easy to find if you live in the countryside. Egg cartons, baling twine, old denim, corrugated cardboard, dried bark, woody plant fibers, and nut shells are just a few items collected for smoker fuel.
Another option for keepers that don’t live in a rural area or just don’t have time to gather free fuel items is to purchase fuel. A popular item right now is wood pellet fuel because is easy to load and reportedly smolders all day. Other options include cotton fiber, burlap (hessian), organic sugar cane mulch, and course wood shavings.
Keeping it lit
Most of the time your best fuel choice is simply the one that stays lit the longest and works best for you. My #1 tip is to start off with a good strong fire at the bottom before you pack in your fuel. Think of a fireplace or fire pit; the best cooking heat comes from a good base of coals. Packing your fuel in tight will hold the heat of the embers on the bottom and help your fuel smolder from the base upward every time you pump in some air.
Keeping it cool
The concern with hot-blast systems, in which air is pushed up through the fire, is that the smoke will be too hot for the bees and cause them harm. There are a few different ways to deal with this. One is to use something like green grass at the top of your fuel pack. This helps cool the smoke by acting as a filter to keep hot ash from flowing out and by providing a bit of moisture. If your fuel has too much air it will burn faster and hotter. So a tightly packed canister is another good way to keep your smoke cool. The smoke will be traveling from the fire source in the bottom up though the unlit fuel allowing the ash to be filtered.
What to look for in a smoker
Many first-time beekeepers get their smoker as part of a hive kit, or inherit one from a friend or relative. That’s fine if you remember to try it out before you get your bees! Unless you are working with a buddy, effectively having 4 hands instead of just 2, then handling the smoker can be one of the most challenging things to learn. How do you move a box with one hand and apply smoke with the other? When do you stoke the smoker to keep it going while inspecting your hive? Practicing with your smoker can help you find answers.
Stainless steel is the top material used in smokers now. It is strong enough to hold up to those mishaps we all run into – like accidently kicking it out of reach. Also look at construction; you want a strong cover hinge and well attached bellows.
Most new smokers come with a cage around the main canister to protect you from burns. Some models also extend the cage to the bottom of your smoker in case you place it on something flammable while it is still hot. How much of a heat protection cage you want is a personal choice, but for me the full cage feature feels safer.
Removable fire canister
I’ve seen homemade inserts and know about the removable insert features in some newer models, but have never used it. The design is two-fold; easy access to starting and packing your fuel, and constant airflow within the fire canister. Once again this seems like a personal choice.
It’s hard to find a modern bee smoker without a heat shield and a mounting hook, but if you are getting a used smoker this is another important safety feature. Being able to hang it somewhere safe while it is hot is convenient and wise. Sure, with a proper heat shield, you can set your smoker some place to cool off, but there is always the chance it will get knocked over. Go with a mounting hook if you have a choice.
The bellows is essentially a hand pump so you need to consider who will be using it. Are your kids going to help you? Do you have arthritic hands? Ultimately, you want the bellows to be easy to use. Leather is commonly used for bellows construction and when cared for properly can last a good long time. Newer materials include vinyl, plastic, canvas and rubber.