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Beekeeper smoke pot

Daniel, at age 4, twelve years ago. His hands were too small for gloves so we tied the ends of his beesuit. We didn’t think of giving him an air filter mask!

Smoke or no smoke? Good question.

It surprises me that there are beekeepers who have completely forsworn smokers. Such quixotic folks ply their trade without smoke, believing (perhaps correctly) that a bee smoker invalidates the organic status of their honey.

My father, about 40 years ago, smoking bees in Europe with his pipe.

Chemicals from a smoker are potentially hazardous. Smoke from my father’s corncob pipe proved carcinogenic, at least after 66 years of piping caught up to him and he, at age 80, developed a tiny knob of cancer under his tongue. It was spotted early and removed before causing serious damage. He used his pipe (and a conventional smoker made by Dadant) for decades. Smoke became mixed with the food we ate at the family table, from my father’s pipe, not a barbeque. Honey harvested with a bee smoker probably wasn’t good for us, but it’s not likely to have been a major health hazard – at least based on the anecdotal evidence of the health and longevity of most of my immediate family.

Still, some beekeepers are philosophically opposed to using a smoker. If you are considering working your bees without one, history is against you. Rather early, humans learned to carry smoky torches up trees when they liberated honeycombs from lofty wild hives. It seems rather obvious that bees evolved to peacefully turn over their honey to humans upon smelling smoke. What else would explain their docile smoke reflex?

But some modern beekeepers have decided that they should work bees without smoke. That’s nice. But if you are not an accomplished, experienced beekeeper, I’d advise against it. A tiny amount of smoke, judiciously applied to the entrance before the hive is opened and along the top bars once or twice during your bee work is all it usually takes to calm the bees and allow a few minutes of personal bee immersion. Without smoke, the entire hive can quickly become unmanageable, stinging the beekeeper severely and possibly taking down neighbours in the process. I was once called to a house where the resident beekeeper had opened his hive without smoke, the bees erupted, and the beekeeper ran. I was asked to replace frames taken out by the fleeing beekeeper. He watched through his kitchen window.

Bad ideas go up in smoke.

If you’ve been working bees for a while, you may have become a smokerless beekeeper. If so, you should have learned how to pick the right weather to lift the lid, how to move smoothly amid the bees, and how to replace the frames and lid when the bees become seriously defensive, as is their custom.

These skills are not learnt the first time a hive is opened, yet I’ve known bee-gurus who insist that their new, inexperienced disciples must never own a smoker. As in most things in life, balance is good. So is safety. For some gurus, this isn’t an option. It’s all or nothing. No smoke, they tell me, is the natural way to keep bees. Period. I’d rather see new beekeepers taught to use caution and smoke very, very gently than to totally eschew the calming effect of judicious cool smoke.

I mentioned the inorganic nature of smoked honey. This is probably a valid concern. I don’t know how to address it, except to ask whether some of the beekeepers who imagine themselves as ‘working with nature’ could advise me. Please send me a note, I’d love to hear if you are a natural beekeeper producing organic honey even if you apply smoke to your bees. I guess it could be natural, organic smoke, sourced from the dried pods of organically grown sumac.

I realize that some beekeepers are worried that smoke – even in tiny amounts – will hurt their bees. I appreciate the sentiment. Unfortunately, without smoke, any hive examination is precarious. When Betty Bee alerts Henrietta and Suzy who then alert their four best friends who tell sixteen more about an intrusion, hundreds of bees may go wild in a minute. The beekeeper may suffer a lot of stings. The key is to learn to use smoke in very carefully delivered doses. This is something learned from experience, though I’ll mention some tips in coming posts.

So, I strongly recommend using a bee smoker (or corncob pipe). Next blog post (maybe tomorrow), I’ll write about lighting and using a smoker. We’ll also consider the many types of fuel. My favourite was pine straw but I don’t use it anymore – later, you’ll see why.

Just a little smoke from a little smoker.

Smoke or no smoke? Good question. It surprises me that there are beekeepers who have completely forsworn smokers. Such quixotic folks ply their trade without smoke, believing (perhaps correctly) that a bee smoker invalidates the organic status of their honey. Chemicals from a smoker are potentially hazardous. Smoke from my father's corncob pipe proved carcinogenic,…

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Do beekeepers smoke bees with marijuana?

Okay, I’m filing this under “infrequently asked questions,” but about five years ago my doctor asked me this exact question and I’ve been mulling over it ever since. I’ve never actually seen anyone fill a smoker with marijuana, but that doesn’t mean anything. And the doctor was from Texas, which probably explains everything.

I find it amazing that so many beekeepers use a smoker. It’s even referred to as the “beekeeper’s best friend.” But the day I gave mine up was the best beekeeping day of my life. So what’s wrong with a smoker?

For starters, it makes me sneeze. I’ve tried all kinds of fuel, including burlap, sisal twine, wood chips, and smoker pellets, but they all make me miserable. Also, I don’t have enough hands to manipulate the smoker, the hive tool, the lid, and whatever else I have with me. While klutzing around with it, I’ve ignited brush fires, scorched wooden equipment, burned holes in my bee suit, blistered my fingers, and killed a lot of worker bees. Half the time I forget to bring something to light it with, and the rest of the time I can’t get it lit regardless of which incendiary device I use. And once it’s lit, it always goes out before I’m done.

Then there’s the question of the honey. When exposed to smoke, bees tend to fill up on honey. This is the very thing that “calms” them down. To get the honey they will tear open sealed comb, if necessary, and make a mess of it. If you are trying to produce comb honey, a smoke-crazed bee is the last thing you want. Sometimes, too, flecks of ash can land on the comb, or the comb takes on the smell and/or taste of burned fuel. For those producing extracted honey or just pollinating, these honeycomb problems are pretty much a non-issue. But like I say, how you keep bees is very dependent on what you’re trying to accomplish.

In any case, if you don’t want to use a smoker, then don’t. The bees can be a bit irritating at times, but you get used to them, or you can spray them with a light mist of sugar syrup. I find the bees way less annoying than the smoker, and going without means fewer distractions in the field as well. So, while I don’t know why beekeepers are so addicted to their smokers, maybe the good doctor was onto something.

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  • March 17, 2010
  • beekeeping equipment, comb honey production, infrequently asked questions
  • comb honey, smoke
  • Permalink
  • 12 Comments

Comments

Hello and thank you for thinking outside the box!

I am not beekeeping and have no experience with bees. However there is a huge feral hive nearby that I would like to harvest from. Would you think it would be safe for me to harvest without a smoker without experience or familiarity with this hive if I go slow? The hive is very well exposed at least. It is hanging from an eve.

I think you should call a beekeeper to help you. Someone with protective equipment should be the one to examine the hive. Also, you don’t say where you live. But if you live in an area where Africanized honey bees live, approaching the hive could be very dangerous.

See if you can find a local beekeeper club. You can probably get a beekeeper to help you for free.

Also, I’ve been looking and looking online but I have found no guidance on how to discern which combs contain honey!

The same beekeeper who helps you with the hive can show you the difference between brood (developing bees) and honey. It’s kind of hard to see it in photos–much easier if someone shows you.

Okay, I live on Guam; I highly doubt there would be any Africanized bees here. And the hive is in a very populated area and has been there for ages — it must not be aggressive I figure. But I don’t want to be stupid. I guess I could ask the one beekeeper here. There are no clubs. I was just reluctant to do that because I don’t know if I would still get to score honey as I don’t know what his whole attitude will be. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!!

Maybe you could share the honey with him. Or maybe you could become the second beekeeper in the area. You sound like you might like it!

I am watching a special about the disappearance of the honey bees. The first thing that came to mind was the smoker. I have no experience with beekeeping, so it was just a thought. The owner said he smoked a healthy hive and 3 hours later the worker bees had abandoned the queen and eggs. I found what you wrote very interesting. I get a lot of enjoyment from learning new things. I just wanted to say thank you. I wish I could afford to leave a donation.

I’m so glad to read that I don’t *have* to use a smoker! After all of the fires here in Eastern WA I’m terrified of using one. It seems insane to go out to a dry, grassy field spewing unscreened smoke that could easily have hot ash in it. I think the risk is way too high. One beekeeper in the area left his smoker in his truck and his truck burned up. My friends’ house burned down because of a spark on the road. Even the remotest chance of starting a fire is not worth it.

And earlier this year I burned a hole in a picnic table. Thought the smoker was out.

I have a bumble bee colony in a pump room wall. Currently I am using marijuana incense (incense infused with marijuana) I lit 4 of them and closed the door. They don’t like it. I’m trying to get them to leave. They want to attack when I read the meters. These are meters that must be read and logged on a daily basis and they (the bees) don’t like me to do that. . .

I used a vape machine to pump marijuana smoke through a pencil sized hole in the wall at my house, to get rid of bats. Filling the wall with smoke, I should have notified my neighbor first. When they saw smoke coming from the roof, they called the fire department. When the firefighters got here, they called the sheriff because of all the pot smoke. The sheriff came and had to ask the firefighters to stand away from the smoke. The sheriff said I was not smoking marijuana, but then I was. He just said next time tell the neighbors. Oh, and the bats are gone.
I’ll let you know if the incense deters the bumble bees.

Yes! Please let us know!

A. I. Root wrote this in the 1917 ABC & XYZ:

There are four inventions that revolutionized the methods of work with bees, and which really form the basis of all modern methods of management today. First and foremost was the invention of movable frames by L. L. Langstroth in 1851. Next followed the invention of comb foundation by J. Mehring, in 1857. The next was the invention of the honey extractor, by Major Francisco Hruschka, in 1865.

The fourth important invention is the bee-smoker. Moses Quinby was the inventor of the bellows bee-smoker, which he brought out in 1875. The modern bee-smoker is almost as indispensable as an extractor and movable frames; for without smoke, applied by means of a convenient instrument, the work of handling bees would be disagreeable if not impossible at times.

Without smoke, many manipulations would be very difficult, and the novice, at least, would be inclined to give up the business after his first experience in trying to handle a colony of bees, especially if weather conditions were unfavorable.

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