Have you ever seen a beekeeper smoking a beehive? That billowing cloud that makes the bees inside docile and calm? As a backyard beekeeping hobbyist myself, I used to wonder – why do beekeepers use smoke? This odd practice seemed mysterious.
After getting into beekeeping and experiencing a few painful stings, the purpose became clear! Smoke is an essential tool that allows beekeepers to safely inspect hives without triggering a mass attack.
Understanding honey bee defensive instincts and how smoke affects their behavior opens up the logic behind this age-old beekeeping technique. Let’s take a deeper dive into the fascinating science and practice of smoking bees.
Honey Bees Go on the Defense
Honey bees are inherently defensive creatures programmed to protect their hive colony. Guard bees stationed at the entrance are quick to investigate any disturbance.
When sensing a potential predator or intruder, bees will instinctively sting to defend their colony. Their stingers release an alarm pheromone that communicates to other bees “we are under attack!”
This scent triggers a swift and coordinated group counterattack. Bees come pouring out of the hive ready to sting the intruder. Without intervention, a beekeeper opening up a hive would be suddenly swarmed by thousands of angry bees!
So in essence, honey bees have an intrinsic defense system designed to ward off any creatures that dare to disturb their home. Their instinct is to mount an aggressive mass-stinging offensive.
Why Beekeepers Rely on Smoke
This is where a bee smoker comes in handy! A trusted tool used by beekeepers for over a century, this metal canister burns plant materials to generate smoke.
When beekeepers gently puff smoke over and around a hive, it changes the bees’ response entirely. Instead of furiously swarming to attack, they become calm and docile.
This smoke triggers a survival instinct that overrides their urge to sting. The bees react by gorging on honey reserves and essentially ignoring the intrusion.
The smoke masks their alarm pheromones so the rest of the colony doesn’t join in the attack. This gives the beekeeper crucial time to quickly inspect frames and assess the health of the hive.
So in short, smoke acts like a magical elixir that lets beekeepers temporarily suspend the defensive instincts of thousands of bees. Without it, inspecting hives would be impossible!
A Long History of Smoking Bees
Did you know the practice of smoking bee hives dates back thousands of years? The earliest record is an ancient Egyptian temple mural from around 2400 BCE.
It depicts a man blowing smoke toward a cylinder hive as he harvests honeycomb. Our ancestors figured out this calming effect by observing wild honey bee nests.
Smoke helped primitive beekeepers collect honey from feral colonies without getting massacred. They likely experimented with burning different materials until discovering smoke made bees more docile.
In modern beekeeping, the essential smoking tool was first invented in 1873 by American Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth. His patented bee smoker with bellows revolutionized the practice, making hive inspections far safer.
So smoking bees has been an integral part of apiculture for millennia. This is a tried and true technique handed down over centuries!
What Does Smoke Do to Bees?
But how exactly does smoke affect honey bees on a physiological level? Scientists have worked to demystify the chemical underpinnings.
It turns out smoke tricks bees into thinking their hive is on fire. Sensing smoke, they prepare to abandon the nest and enter survival mode.
Just like we might panic and stuff valuables in a bag if the fire alarm went off at home, bees have the instinct to react quickly to this threat.
Their first impulse is to furiously gorge themselves on as much honey stores as possible. This gives them energy reserves in case they must suddenly evacuate and find a new home.
Bees focus single-mindedly on this feast. Eating becomes the priority rather than investigating and attacking the intruder. With bellies full of honey, they are also physically hindered in their ability to sting.
So smoke throws honey bees into an eat-all-you-can frenzy versus a sting-first-ask-questions-later mentality. This allows the beekeeper time to intervene without facing their wrath.
Why This Smoke Alarm Works Wonders
Beyond sparking a feast, smoke also confuses bees via smell disruption. Bees communicate heavily through odor signals called pheromones.
When guard bees sense an intruder, they release attack pheromones that rally the troops to join the defensive assault. But suffusing the area with smoke masks this scent.
With their alarm pheromones obscured, the rest of the colony remains unaware of the supposed predator. So the beekeeper remains undetected rather than facing a mob.
Smoke also impairs bees’ ability to pick up on the attack pheromones released by stinging guards. So even bees that do join the counterattack cannot attract reinforcements.
The bottom line is that smoke acts like a smoke screen, sowing chemical confusion so bees don’t respond as defensively. Their lines of communication are cut off.
This provides a crucial window where the hive remains calm despite being opened up by a human intruder. So smoke offers two ways to disarm bees – appetite arousal and scent concealment.
Using a Bee Smoker the Right Way
Now that we know why smoke works, let’s go over proper smoker techniques. Beekeepers have some key tips and tricks for using this tool effectively and humanely:
- Pack the smoker chamber fully with natural fuel like pine needles, cotton balls, wood pellets etc. This ensures it will stay lit during the full inspection.
- Before opening the hive, puff a small amount of smoke across the entrance. This warns the bees an “intruder” is coming so they start reacting.
- Use the bellows to gently blow more smoke over the tops of frames before you remove any. Start lifting frames working from the outside in towards the brood center.
- Apply smoke conservatively – only 2-3 puffs per box. Too much will over-stress the colony.
- If you accidentally squash a bee and get stung, blow abundant smoke over the area. This masks the alarm pheromone released and prevents spreading panic.
- Bring extra fuel with you. Nothing worse than having your smoker go out mid-inspection and losing your bee zen!
- Look for “heat shield” smoker models that protect your hands. Bee stings hurt way more than burns!
Follow this smoke routine, and you can open up even a hot hive without inciting WWIII with your bees. A good smoker is a beekeeper’s best friend!
Types of Smoker Fuels and Alternatives
Not all smoker fuels are created equal. You want materials that burn slowly, generate cool smoke, and don’t have toxic fumes. Popular fuels include:
- Pine needles – My personal favorite! Easy to collect for free and burn consistently.
- Cedar chips or shavings – Catches quickly and smolders well.
- Cotton balls – Need to pack tightly but produces great smoke.
- Burlap strips – Just cut up an old coffee sack. Burns slow and steady.
- Cardboard or egg cartons – Free options that work in a pinch. Avoid coated cardboard.
- Natural fiber rope – Unravel and burn a bit at a time.
- Wood pellets – Low smoke, but long lasting burn.
The most important thing is avoiding synthetic materials like plastics that release harmful chemicals. Or paper that may have chemical residues from bleach etc. Keep it natural!
Some beekeepers are also experimenting with smoke alternatives like:
- Powdered sugar – Dusted over bees, makes them stop and groom instead of stinging.
- Bee pheromones – Sprays that mimic “no threat” scents.
- Water mist – Fine spray simulates rain and may distract bees.
But old-fashioned smoke remains the tried and true choice of most beekeepers. It’s cheap, easy to use, and time-tested.
Why Smoke is Beneficial
Beyond just preventing stings, properly using smoke has many benefits:
- Allows hive inspections to assess bee health.
- Low stress for both bees and beekeeper.
- Aids re-capturing swarms by calming bees.
- Covers escaped queen’s scent so bees stay in cluster.
- Masks “robbing” scent during honey harvest.
- Repels hive beetles and other pests.
When I first started out, I wondered if smoke might upset or harm bees. But studies show it does not cause long-term stress when used correctly.
Smoke is crucial for keeping beekeeping fun and safe for all involved. Both bees and humans thrive when the traditionally tense relationship between us is relaxed through this chemical smoke signal.
Concerns Around Smoking Bees
Of course, some disagreements exist within the beekeeping community about smokers:
- Over-smoking bees can taint honey flavor.
- Filling hive with too much smoke is unpleasant for bees.
- Masking pheromones prevents bees from sounding alarm against threats.
- Alternatives like sugar dusting are less invasive.
These are all valid considerations. Moderation is important – only use two or three puffs per box.
The benefits still seem to outweigh the risks when smoking is done with care. But new techniques may gain popularity if proven successful.
The Essential Beekeeping Tool
Whether you think it’s a fascinating trick or concerning intervention, smoke remains an essential element of beekeeping today.
Despite thousands of years of hive innovation, no reliable alternative has replaced smoking for safely calming bees.
This ingenious tool allows beekeepers to temporarily override honey bee instincts and avoid getting stung. Tricking them into thinking their home is on fire is counterintuitive yet effective!
Smoke may seem mystifying at first, but makes perfect sense when you understand honey bee psychology and chemistry. Next time you see a beekeeper puffing smoke, you’ll know they aren’t just putting on a show!
They are engaging in an ancient art passed down since ancient Egyptian times. A clever chemical hack that allows a unique glimpse into the fascinating world of bees.
So grab your smoker, don your veil, and embrace this legacy – just make sure you have matches handy! A well-smoked hive means a day of blissful beekeeping awaits.