How Does Smoke Affect Honey Bees?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

Smoking is a safe way to calm the bees so that the beekeeper can inspect the hive. The 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 sundrops stored in jars? Honey is one of the only healthy foods that tastes heavenly.

But have you ever wondered how beekeepers steal this ambrosia from the stingy (pun intended) clutches of honey bees?

To protect their honey, a valuable treasure, a small class of worker bees guards the bee colony like bouncers. Approach the hive, and the guard bees will sound the alarm, recruiting bees who hum and sting furiously at you to defend their home, even if it means sacrificing their lives.

Yes, many species die after they sting you.

Why Does A Bee-Sting Hurt So Much And What Can You Do About It
Bee attack!

This is why beekeepers use a special technique to protect themselves from the bees as they tend to the hive or harvest honey: they pass the smoke through the hive.

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Smoking Bees: An Ancient Practice

Beekeepers use a bee incense device designed to produce smoke by smoldering various fuels, using pine needles, wood shavings, paper egg cartons, pellets, rotten wood, dried cow manure, and so on.

Before this newfangled bee smoker was invented, early humans had discovered that smoke pacified bees. Ancient Egyptian artwork depicts beekeepers smoking beehives.

In remote hills of Nepal, beekeepers use smoke 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
(Photo Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Due to advances in science and research and the wisdom gained from them, experts believe that the smoke pacifies the bees in two ways: it impedes their sense of smell and triggers their survival response.

Also Read: Can Bees Get Drunk?

How Does Smoke Affect The Bees?

Suppresses The Pheromone

The smell is an important sense for bees to communicate with each other. Whenever guard bees detect danger, they 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 compounds trigger an alarm response in the hive, which readies them to stage an attack against the intruder. Beekeepers have reported a distinctive pheromone smell when they intrude into bee colonies. They say it smells something like bananas or banana oil.

The smoke masks the smell of the secreted pheromones and prevents other bees from being alerted of an intrusion.

Creates The Illusion Of A Forest Fire

Another explanation for smoke calming the bees is that when a beekeeper smokes out the hive, the bees interpret the smoke as a sign of a forest fire.

In response to this potential threat, they store as much honey as possible in their bodies. This would help them build a new home elsewhere. It takes approximately 6 pounds of honey for bees to make a pound of wax.

With the bees busy eating honey, the beekeeper can inspect the hive or collect honey.

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

Also Read: What Happens To Bees When They Get Lost?

The Design Of A Bee Smoker

The design of the modern-day bee smoker is simple. The smoker can come with a bellow attached on the side and a spout on top to direct the smoke precisely.

Smoking Fuel

To get the smoke started, you need two things: a starter and fuel.

As the name implies, the starter is any material that catches fire quickly and will remain burning long enough till you add fuel. Newspapers, cardboard strips, or pine cones can be used as starters.

To get the bee smoker going, you light up the starter and put it inside the can of the bee smoker, over which kindling would be stuffed.

Some beekeepers may only use fuel to start the smoke, but this requires more skill.

For the fuel, you’ll need small, thin pieces of an object that lights easily and remains 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. You should avoid using chemical-based fuel, as these chemicals can mix in the smoke. The chemicals can be toxic, and you don’t want your bees or yourself to inhale toxic smoke during this delicate process.

How Bee Smokers Work

The functioning of a bee smoker is quite simple. First, you take a starter, such as a piece of newspaper, crumple it, and light it. You throw this ignited starter into the can. Now, you take a handful of burning fuel, like wood shavings, and stuff it over the burning starter in the can.

Then, you pump the bellows to push oxygen into the burning starter. As you pump, you see smoke coming out of the spout.

When you tip more “fuel” into the canister and pump the bellows, you will hear a typical woof-woof sound when the fuel ignition starts burning well.

Be careful how you package the fuel. If you push it too far down, it can obstruct the airflow from the bellows, making it difficult to keep your bee smoker running and smoking for long.

Beekeeper preparing the smoker on the grass(
Beekeeper preparing fuel for the bee smoker (Photo Credit:

Does The Smoke Calm The Bees? And Is It Safe For The Bees?

Beekeepers have used this technique for generations since it doesn’t have long-term side effects on the bees’ health. The smoker is safe for the bees. The bees regain their pheromone sensitivity approximately 10 to 20 minutes after the smoke dissipates.

The smoke calms the bees, and they become easier to work with. This reduces the likelihood that the beekeeper may crush a bee, which would agitate the bees.

Precautions When Using A Bee Smoker

However, beekeepers do have to be careful with the tools they use for smoking.

They must try to keep at least five inches away from the bees while smoking. Very high temperatures can melt the bees’ wings.

Most beekeepers say it is better to smoke less than more. Excessive smoking can contaminate the honey and wax. Once again, avoid any chemical ignition material, as it would be toxic for bees and beekeepers. This includes wood with paint on it.

The smoker can get hot. Although modern bee smokers are equipped with a protective wire closure around the can, it is still a bit risky as fingers can slip through the cage and come into contact with the very hot can, leading to 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. Since the bottom is hot, the material beneath the smoker could melt or burn. Also, avoid placing the smoker on sand or debris as the hot air passing from the bellows could pull them towards the can. This, in turn, could clog the smoker.

Careful application of a bee smoker while adhering to all these precautions can greatly facilitate the honey harvest process.

So, don’t feel too guilty next time you open the honey jar. No bees have been harmed to make it!

That being said, you’ve just stolen a bunch of their food by essentially knocking them out and force-feeding them their own honey.

References (click to expand)
  1. Tan, K., Dong, S., Li, X., Liu, X., Wang, C., Li, J., & Nieh, J. C. (2016, March 25). Honey Bee Inhibitory Signaling Is Tuned to Threat Severity and Can Act as a Colony Alarm Signal. (L. Chittka, Ed.), PLOS Biology. Public Library of Science (PLoS).
  2. Visscher, P. K., Vetter, R. S., & Robinson, G. E. (1995, January). Alarm pheromone perception in honey bees is decreased by smoke (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Insect Behavior. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.
  3. Handling bees - Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and ....
  4. Kritsky, G. (2015). The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
About the Author

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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