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If you’re new to beekeeping or just a little inquisitive, you may have seen beekeepers smoking their hives and wondered what they were doing. Well, the reason they do this is to subdue the bees while they perform maintenance on the hive. But why does smoke calm bees?
Smoke interferes with the bees’ sense of smell. Bees need this sense of smell to communicate with one another using pheromones but smoke quells that.
The good news is that this is only a temporary effect and as soon as the smoke clears, the bees’ sense of smell is restored in around 20 minutes. So, it’s perfectly safe.
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As a beekeeper, it is your responsibility to maintain the hive to a safe and liveable standard for your colony. For the most part, the bees will do all of the hard work. After all, these ancient creatures have been surviving without human assistance for more than 14 million years!
But you may need to fix broken parts of the hive, remove comb, prepare the hive for winter and perform other routine tasks. There’s quite a significant risk of upsetting the bees when you do this because, after all, you’re invading their home so why wouldn’t they be peeved?
The problem with angry bees is that they can sting. While a bee sting is not usually dangerous to humans, it’s not pleasant. Plus, when there are thousands of bees on a rampage, you aren’t going to want to be caught in the middle.
So, beekeepers use smokers to emit smoke which subdues the bees and reduces the risk of them getting fired up and stinging. I’ll go into more detail on how this works later on.
While modern beekeepers still use this tactic, it’s not a new thing. In fact, there have been ancient Egyptian drawings depicting a man blowing smoke at a beehive before taking out the honey. These images are believed to be around 4500 years old.
Bee smokers are common devices used by beekeepers and the fuel that you use can vary greatly. Some beekeepers use burlap or cardboard while others opt for wood pellets, pine needles or twigs. As long as it’s natural and the smoke doesn’t contain any toxins that’ll harm the bees, you’ll be a winner.
If the smoker is fueled with anything that contains chemicals or irritants then this will not have the calming effect you’d hoped for. Instead, it’s likely only to rile the bees and you’ll be the one that suffers. If you ever light your bee smoker and notice an odd smell, put it out and use something else.
When choosing a bee smoker fuel, you want something that’ll light quickly and easily but burns slowly. It also needs to be a fuel that emits a lot of smoke, otherwise, what’s the point? The good news is that you can actually buy bee smoker fuel if you don’t want to use something from home. But whatever you decide to use, I’d always advise having smoker fuel in stock at all times as you never know when you might need it.
The question on everybody’s lips is how does smoke subdue the bees? Well, it’s all to do with the way that bees use pheromones to communicate.
One of the ways that these winged creatures communicate with one another is to release an alarm pheromone when there is danger. For example, if a bee stings you, those pheromones are emitted and his hive mates will soon be along to find out what’s going on and defend the hive where necessary.
Once one bee is in a state of alarm, it isn’t long before the rest of the colony follows suit. It’s a great defence tactic and shows how well these critters work together but it doesn’t make beekeeping easy.
This is where the bee smoker comes in. The smoke interferes with a bee’s ability to pick up on the scent of alarm pheromones emitted by other bees as it dampens its sense of smell. This means that, even though most of the bees will be alarmed, none of the others can detect this so they continue going about their business.
It has been said that very potent floral scents have a similar effect on the bees but since smokers have been used for such a long time, most beekeepers are happy to stick with this tried and tested method.
For a very long time, people believed that the interference of the bees’ sense of smell was the only way that smoke worked to calm them. However, there has been recent research to show that this calming method has another effect on the bees.
When they sense smoke, the colony will go into survival mode since they believe that there is fire and this poses a threat to the hive. During research sessions, it has been noted that the bees begin gorging on honey as soon as they sense smoke. It’s been suggested that, because the bees are so full of honey, they lack the energy or motivation to sting, making it easier for the beekeeper to tend to the hive.
Before further research was conducted, people thought that the bees gorged on honey this way so that they were ready to abandon their hive should they need to. But, a study performed in 2017 demonstrated that the bees were doing this as a way to survive should the fire destroy potential local nectar sources. The study took place with 17 wild nests in South Africa where there had recently been a bushfire.
Despite the nest and local plant life being utterly destroyed, the bees were able to survive as a result of their previous gorging. Around a week after the fire had ended, there were a small number of plants that began to re-emerge. The bees were now able to start collecting nectar once again.
Due to these findings, it is now also believed that smoke diverts bees’ attention away from the human messing around with their hive. They’re far too interested in going into survival mode and gorging on all that honey!
If you’re wondering whether smoking bees is a good idea, the answer is that it’ll do them no harm. The only exception to this is if you were to use harmful fuel. But, as discussed earlier, as long as what you’re using is natural and doesn’t contain anything irritating, it’ll be OK.
Moreover, while smoking bees does interfere with their sense of smell and ability to detect pheromones, this is a reversible effect. Usually, within about ten or twenty minutes, the effects will wear off and the bee will continue being able to perform as normal.
Check Out These Smokers:
Most beekeepers will tell you that it’s best to leave the hive alone as much as possible. But of course, there are going to be instances when you need to lend a helping hand. The problem is that the bees don’t know you’re trying to help them and see you as a threat.
So, you’ll use your smoker but it’s always best to keep in mind that you’ll have the best results for inspections and maintenance when your bees feel calm and safe.
To ensure this, one of the first things you’ll need to make sure of is that your smoker doesn’t run out of smoke. So, before you head out there, put in as much fuel as the smoker will hold. The last thing you want is for it to go out when you’re halfway through your work.
As you approach the hive, don’t go in all guns blazing. Give the bees some fair warning of your presence. You can do this by blowing a couple of puffs of smoke into the opening of the hive. Also, unless your bees are especially angry, there’s no need to go over the top with the smoke. A few puffs should be more than enough.
However, just because you’re armed with a smoker, that doesn’t mean you should be rough and aggressive. It’s still really important to make slow, considered movements that aren’t going to startle the bees. Even in this case, there is still a risk of being stung so be prepared to smoke the entire area if this happens to throw the other bees off the scent.
If you’ve ever watched a beekeeper taking care of their hive, you’ll probably have seen them using a bee smoker. These tools are imperative in keeping the bees from stinging and remaining placid during a hive inspection and other work. But why does smoke calm bees?
Smoke works in two ways; dulling the bee’s sense of smell and encouraging them to go into survival mode. It’s an ancient tactic that has been used since ancient Egyptian times and continues to be one of the most effective methods to date.