How Does Smoke Affect Honey Bees?

Smoke masks bees’ sense of smell and prevents the transfer of intruder alarm signalS. Smoke fools bees into thinking there is a forest fire, so they essentially get drunk on honey, which calms them.

Who doesn’t love the warm, sweet drops of sunshine stored in golden honey jars? Honey is one of the only foods that is extremely healthy, yet tastes heavenly. However, have you ever wondered how beekeepers manage to steal this ambrosia from the stingy (pun intended) clutches of honey bees?

How Does Smoke Affect Honey Bees

Yummy honey! (source: Dani Vincek/shutterstock)

To protect the honey, which is a valuable treasure for bees, a small class of worker class bees guards the beehive colony like bouncers. If you come near the beehive, these bees will instantly raise the alarm among the protective bees, who will buzz angrily and sting you to defend their domicile, even if it means sacrificing their lives to protect their home. Yes, many types of bees die after they sting you.

Therefore, beekeepers use a particular technique to protect themselves from the bees while tending to the hive or harvesting honey: passing smoke through the hive.

Smoking bees: What does smoke do to bees?

Beekeepers use a device called a bee smoker, which has been designed to create smoke by smoldering various types of fuel. They use pine needles, wood shavings, paper egg cartons, pellets, rotten wood, dried cow manure etc., as fuel.

Long before the invention of this newfangled bee smoker, early humans had discovered that smoke pacified bees. Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts beekeepers smoking bee hives. In fact, similarly basic ways of using the smoke to calm down bees is still practiced in remote hilly areas of Nepal. Over there, it is used to collect psychotropic honey from dangerously located colonies hanging on the sides of cliffs. In the late nineteenth century, American inventor, Moses Quinby invented the modern bee smoker with a bellow attached to a tin burner.

Moses Quinby

Moses Quinby, inventor of the mechanical bee smoker (Photo Credit : Publiic Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

With advancements in science and research and the wisdom gained, experts posit that the smoke pacifies the bees in two ways: it hinders their sense of smell and triggers their survival response.

Suppressing the pheromone

The predominant mode of communication for bees is their sense of smell. Whenever there is an intruder near the hive, the bees secrete alarm pheromones, isopentyl acetate, and 2-heptanone. A pheromone is a substance secreted by an animal that causes a specific reaction in another individual of the same species. These alarm compounds trigger an alarm response in other bees, which readies them to stage an attack against the intruder. In fact, beekeepers have reported a distinctive smell of the pheromone when they intrude into bee colonies. They say it smells something like bananas or banana oil.

So, when you smoke a beehive, it basically masks the smell of the secreted pheromones and prevents other bees from being alerted of an intrusion.

Illusion of a forest fire

Another explanation for why smoke mollifies the bees is that when a beekeeper smokes out the hive, the bees interpret the smoke as an indicator of a forest fire. The bees presume that they must abandon their abode and search for a new one or else they’ll perish in the fire!

As a natural reaction to this threat, they store up as much honey as they can in their bodies. This helps them in building a new home elsewhere. It takes approximately 8 pounds of honey for bees to make a pound of wax. Hence, they gorge on the honey and inundate their bellies with it. This makes them lethargic—just like humans after overeating. This lethargy subdues their stinging response, as they become too slow and groggy to attack.

Drunken Bee meme

Now, let’s look into the technical details of the bee smoker and try to understand how it works to placate the bees.

Bee smoker

The design of the modern-day bee smoker is simple. Although the original smoker designed by Quinby had some holes punched in it, these holes distributed the smoke evenly. However, the design of bee smokers has evolved over time. Now the can of the smoker comes with a bellow attached on the side and a spout on top so you can direct the smoke precisely where you want.

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Smoker fuel

Smoker fuel used to release the smoke is at the heart of the bee smoker. Smoker fuel basically needs two things: a starter and kindling.

As the name indicates, the starter should be something that lights quickly and continues to remain lit for long enough to kickstart the kindling which is the next step. Newspaper, cardboard strips, or pinecone can be used as a starter. Basically, what you do is light up the starter and put it inside the can of the bee smoker, over which kindling would be stuffed. Some people use the kindling directly, without using a starter, but it requires more skill to thoroughly start a fire from kindling without a starter.

For kindling, you’ll need small and thin pieces that light easily and remain lit for an extended time. Pine needles work well for this purpose. Other alternatives are wood shavings, dried cow manure, hamster bedding, dried shredded leaves, and laundry lint. It is recommended that you avoid using chemical-based fuel, as these chemicals would be mixed in the smoke. Also, as you smoke the region, you will end up inhaling some, and you don’t want to inhale toxic chemicals during this delicate process.

How a bee smoker works

The way a bee smoker works is rather straightforward. First, you take a starter, such as a piece of newspaper. You crumple it and lit it up with lighter. You toss this lit starter inside the can. Then you pump the bellows to push oxygen into the burning starter. As you pump, you’ll see smoke emanating from the spout. Now, take a handful of kindling fuel, like wood shavings and stuff it over the burning starter inside the can. As you dump more “fuel” in the can and pump the bellows, you can hear a typical woof woof woof sound as the kindling of the fuel begins to burn well. You must be watchful of how you pack the kindling material. If you push it down too far, it can hamper the airflow from the bellows. This would make it difficult to keep your bee smoker running and smoking for very long.

Beekeeper preparing the smoker on the grass(Rawpixel.com)S

Beekeeper preparing fuel for the bee smoker (Photo Credit : Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Precautions for using a bee smoker

Beekeepers have used this technique for generations, since it doesn’t have long-term side effects on the bees’ health. Their pheromone sensitivity returns in approximately 10 to 20 minutes after the smoke dissipates. However, beekeepers do have to be careful with the tools they use for smoking. Very high temperatures can melt the bees’ wings. They must try to keep at least five inches away from the bees while smoking.

Although it’s challenging to release the right amount of smoke, most beekeepers say it’s better to smoke less than to smoke more. Over-smoking also poses the threat of contaminating the stored honey and wax. As mentioned before, it is recommended to avoid using any chemical-based kindling material, as it would be toxic to both the bees and beekeeper.

The smoker can get really hot. Though modern-day bee smokers come with protective wire caging around the can, it is still a bit risky, as fingers can slip through the cage and come in contact with the very hot can, which can result in burns. Professional beekeepers hold the smoker by the bellows or attach a hook to hold the smoker.

Also, the beekeeper needs to be wary about keeping the smoker on any surface. Because the bottom is very hot and susceptible material beneath it can melt or scorch due to heat. Also, don’t keep the smoking can on the ground full of sand or debris, as the hot air passing from the bellows would pull them towards the can. This in turn could lead to the clogging of the smoker, which could then start to malfunction.

Using a bee smoker carefully, while taking all these precautions, can make the process of honey harvesting much easier.

Therefore, the next time you pop open that honey jar, don’t feel too guilty about it—no bees were harmed to make it! That being said, you did just steal a bunch of their food by essentially knocking them out and force-feeding them their own honey….

References

  1. University of California, San Diego Biology Labs
  2. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Experts
  3. Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research & Extension Consortium
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Rujuta has a MA in Counseling Psychology and MSc in Cognitive Science. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Cognitive Science from IIT Kanpur in India. Her primary area of interest being human memory and learning, she is also interested in the neuroscience of cognitive processes. She also identifies herself as a bibliophile and a harry potter fanatic.

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