I often marvel at bee keepers who will pop a lid on an active beehive without using smoke, then curse the bees as they pour out of their domicile pelting the offenders in an effort to drive him/her away and protect their home. To me that is a huge “Duh!”
Using a smoker is not only crucial for your protection and the proper manipulation of the colony, but, in my opinion, a common courtesy expressed toward our honey bee friends.
Consider their situation. It’s a spectacular sunny day, the honey flow is on, all is well in the bee hive, when out of the blue, the lid of their home is ripped off, the darkness abruptly torn way exposing them to glaring sunlight!
Wouldn’t you be concerned if it was your home?
When using the smoker/smoke appropriately, it acts as a defense shield for the beekeeper; each puff of cool smoke helps distract the alarmed bees by disrupting the flow of communication in the bee hive via the distribution of pheromones. Even the queen has her own royal array of pheromones, stimulating and attracting the colony to her, thus assuring the collective body all is well. God save the queen!
BASICS OF THE SMOKER
The smoker is usually made of stainless steel or copper and consists of a chamber, in which you will place ‘smoker fuel’, a snout- style lid to direct the flow of smoke, a grate in the bottom of the chamber helps establish good ventilation for the embers and assure strong smoke. There is also a ‘hook’ attached, that is used to hang the smoker from the side of a hive. A safety guard is optional and suggested to prevent skin contact. The bellows will ‘puff’ smoke efficiently through the lid and onto the bees.
You will open the smoker by tilting the lid; it will easily roll forward on its hinges allowing access to the smoker chamber. Grab a small handful of dry grass or twigs, ignite them and drop them into/onto the grate in the bottom of the chamber. As it continues to smoke, add more twigs, pine needles or organic material to intensify the burn. When you notice a viable flame, drop a few handfuls of horse manure or cow manure on top of the burning matter and puff that bellow several times! Get the manure to catch, making certain the fire is not smothered by these additions! As the manure begins to flame, top it off with a bit more fuel, then, loosely pack the smoker chamber, but do not stifle the heat source! Get that 'cool' smoke pouring out.
A SMOKER SHOULD NOT 'BEE' A BLOWTORCH!
Be mindful of the wind, it may be too dangerous to light a smoker; use your best judgment. Many bee keepers are unaware of the power of their smoker. I’m not only speaking of the flame deep inside and the potential destructive force if mishandled, but, remind you that the discreet use of a ‘cool’ smoke is the key to basic beehive manipulation.
Imagine you are in the bee yard, we have our protective clothing with veil on and our trusty hive tool ready to crack the top lid of the bee hive. Gently, but firmly we ease the lid up, puffing smoke as we go. Notice how a large contingent of bees on the top bars, sides and lid are fanning the scent across and around the hive, this is when and where smoke will aid in disguising communication pheromones and allow the knowledgeable bee keeper entry into their domain.
Don’t use too much smoke, it can disorient the bees. One does not need huge billows of smoke! First, two or three substantial puffs at the front entrance, a puff or two directed down into the hive and across the top bars upon opening will suffice. Depending on local weather conditions, clouds and so on, I use a puff or two every minute or so; sometimes every thirty seconds. If the bees seem uneasy, small puffs on an almost continual basis especially during cooler weather, may be necessary. You will learn one way or the other to gauge this-- hopefully not "the other".
If the wind is blowing, prepare to adjust and compensate. As you work, the smoker fuel chamber will get hotter as fuel dissipates. Most smokers have a safety guard around them to keep the chamber away from direct contact with the skin, since many beekeepers place the smoker between their knees during a hive inspection, it sounds awkward, but is very effective and saves time. I often keep an eye out for green grass or reach up and remove a few green leaves to tamp down in the smoker chamber when it starts to run hot. You don’t need a blowtorch to work your bees!
Look for white smoke that is not hot to the touch. If you ignore my ‘blowtorch’ warning, the honey bees will remind you of it, since no creature enjoys being blasted with red hot cinders and sour smoke. Check your smoke and flame at regular intervals while working your colonies. Keep it cool!
Pay attention to what the bees are telling you with each puff of smoke. Watch, listen! With some practice you’ll find yourself using the smoker to its full potential while keeping your honeybees happy and largely cooperative.
PUT IT OUT
Remember what Smokey the Bear always says and take it to heart. Plan ahead with a lit smoker; know how and where you will extinguish it. I take my shovel or hive tool and make a large hole, usually one foot in circumference and one foot deep: carefully dump the contents of the smoker chamber into it, using the hive tool to scrape the grate at the bottom to remove any remaining burning debris. Add water and it's all good. Or, if you're not traveling far, place the lit smoker in a secure metal container of some sort that will lock snugly and not bounce out of the vehicle.
Respect for our honey bees via the judicious use of cool smoke can literally ‘bee’ a lifesaver. When doing a hive inspection, visualize a mental road map of what you want to accomplish. Like any guest that overstays their welcome, ‘bee’ ware, you only have so much time to get in and do what needs to bee done. Remember, even with the correct use of smoke, our sweet honey bee friends can easily run out of patience with a dawdling beekeeper.