There’s little in the beekeeper’s toolkit more essential to the trade than the smoker, a tin can of a device with attached bellows. The smoker offers the beekeeper a small window of opportunity for sting-free hive management.
How it Works
Beekeepers load the smoker — first introduced in the late 1800s — with naturally burning materials like straw, dried grass, twigs, burlap, pine needles — then light the materials on fire, close the top, and squeeze the bellows until a smoldering fire sends smoke billowing forth. Primarily, I want a fire that will carry me through a very brief hive inspection.
I use dried sumac, a plant that grows wild here in rural Pennsylvania. The sumac was given to me by Roman, an Amish friend who proposed that one light could burn for hours, something necessary only when we’re rescuing a colony of bees from a soon-to-be-downed tree.
Research indicates that a couple quick puffs of smoke mask the bees’ alarm pheromones (emitted because I’m getting into their space) and prompt the bees to be on stand-by for a possible exit. When honeybees prepare to leave their home because of fire or for other reasons, they begin to fill their abdomens with the energy-rich honey they’ll need to sustain them on a journey. Distended abdomens mean the bees will not be able to force their bodies into stinging position, presenting the beekeeper with a brief respite from their stings.
As a beekeeper, I try to disturb the bees as little as possible. I’m typically in and out in less than a minute for a hive inspection, and I’ve found that by summer’s end, the bees often give me little notice at all.