When you think of a beekeeper, what comes to mind? Certainly, you think of someone in that big, puffy suit with a veil around their head, and probably a small can that spews smoke.
Indeed, the smoker is an essential part of a beekeeper’s repertoire. But what’s the deal with smoke in the first place, why do beekeepers need it to interact with their bees? What exactly does smoke do to bees?
Smoke helps to pacify bees. It does this by blocking alarm signals that worker bees emit to organize a defensive reaction from fellow workers, and it also incentivizes bees to start gobbling honey which further slows and calms them down.
Turns out that the smoke isn’t just ceremonial! Smoke has a profound physiological effect on bees in a couple of different ways and both of them are beneficial for folks who want to inspect their hives or harvest honey without getting the bees all riled up.
Not only is it a fascinating bit of trivia, but it’s also need-to-know information if you want to safely keep bees yourself. I’ll tell you a lot more in the rest of this article…
Why Do Beekeepers Use Smoke?
Beekeepers use smoke on their beats to keep the colony calm while they are interacting with the hive for whatever purpose.
Beekeepers often need to open up a hive box to inspect numbers, check on the brood, the amount of stored honey, and many other factors aside from extracting honey supers to collect the honey itself.
Even though a good bee suit will protect a beekeeper completely (or nearly so) from bee stings, smoke helps the beekeeper and the bees stay even safer.
Keep in mind that when honey bees sting, their stinger tears out and they die, so it’s a one-and-done proposition for them! By keeping them calm and preventing them from getting the instinct to sting, more bees stay alive.
What Did Beekeepers Use Before Smokers?
Interesting stuff, using smoke to pacify bees. But this brings up an even more important question: What in the world did beekeepers use before the invention of the modern smoker?
It turns out they used… smoke! That’s right, ancient peoples from thousands and thousands of years ago had already long figured out that smoke calmed bees down and made collecting honey or interacting with the hives a heck of a lot easier.
Although they didn’t have specialized smoker apparatuses like we enjoy today, they used burning fronds or other materials carried or placed nearby to settle the bees down before they moved in.
Turns out that aside from advances in materials, beekeeping just hasn’t changed that much over the years!
How Does Smoke Calm Bees Down?
Smoke calms bees down directly by baffling their sense of smell that they use to detect pheromones, specifically the pheromones that are emitted by guard bees which tell them to start defending the hive.
Smoke also alerts bees that there is a possible fire nearby, something which is a constant destroyer of beehives in the wild.
When they smell smoke, they know the end might be near and so they start gorging on honey to sustain themselves as they evacuate. A bee with a belly full of honey is slow, sluggish and sleepy; all keep them even calmer!
Bees Rely on Alarm Pheromones to Alert Each Other to Danger
It’s worth expanding on the pheromone communications that bees rely on to coordinate. Bees can emit various kinds of pheromones to convey information to their fellow workers and other members of the hive.
In the case of guard bees who are always alert for trouble that might be approaching the hive, when they detect it, they start squirting out a special fragrance that will tell all other worker bees that smell it to defend their home and hearth. That means they prepare to sting in order to protect the colony.
This leads to an obvious chain reaction of a defensive posturing that, very quickly, will have the whole hive enraged and on the offensive.
It’s the smoke that blocks the receptors that bees use to detect this pheromone, and even though an individual bee might still sting in self-defense when handled roughly or trapped, smoke totally prevents a mass, coordinated response.
This saves the beekeeper a ton of pain if they’re only partially protected, but also saves the bees themselves!
Do Beekeepers Always Need to Use Smoke on Their Hives?
No, not always. Many experienced beekeepers who are intimately acquainted with their own hives and the species of bees occupying them might be able to get close to the hives and even perform cursory inspections without eliciting a defensive response from them.
Many kinds of honey bees tend towards passivity when possible because they only get to sting one time before they die!
There’s even plenty of evidence to suggest that bees can learn to recognize individual faces, and with time will associate a careful, conscientious beekeeper with a non-threat, say compared to something like an invasive animal or other predator.
Accordingly, a beekeeper might go out in only a suit or even just a veil with no smoker to back them up, though only the boldest will do so without a veil at all.
Is Smoke Harmful to Bees?
No, not directly. It sounds like smoke really knocks bees for a loop, and it does, but it’s only transient in its effects. It only blocks their reception of the pheromones that signal defensive behavior, it does not actually harm the receptors themselves.
After a bee has been exposed to smoke and the smoke has cleared entirely, its sense of smell and sensitivity to pheromones of all kinds will return in anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, meaning the colony will reorganize and react normally to various stimuli.
It is worth mentioning, however, that smoke is quite warm as it comes out of a smoker, and it or any other source of intense heat can harm bees.
This is particularly likely by damaging their wings. Beekeepers must always be cautious to avoid injuring bees, and themselves when using a hot smoker.
Do Different Kinds of Smoke Have Different Effects?
No. Beekeepers in antiquity used everything from pine needles and dried leaves to dung in order to generate smoke that would pacify bees. It’s the quality of the smoke itself, not the source of the smoke, that calms them down.
Today, beekeepers use all kinds of things from newspaper and other scrap paper to pine cones and various natural materials. Pretty much anything can be used as fuel in a modern, metal smoker, and all of them work just fine today the same as they did back then.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.