Beginner’s FAQ: Smoker Fuel 101

There is quite an art to keeping you smoker lit properly and ensuring that you’re producing the right kind of smoke – the cool kind. There are many different types of smoker fuel out on the market and also quite a few that you can forage/gather on your own and we’ll also be going through these briefly.

How Does a Smoker Work?

The smoker has a barrel that needs to be filled with fuel, it is ignited and slowly smoulders. When idle, you will see a constant stream of smoke escaping through the pointed funnel at the top. The funnelled lid also often has a hook to make it easier to open (especially so after your smoker has had a lot of use). The bellows are squeezed to provide a burst of air through the barrel via the air conducting tube at the external base of the barrel, this allows the beekeeper to direct a stream of smoke onto or across the top of their bees and also to provide more oxygen to the fuel, helping to keep it ignited. Within the smoker is a fuel grid, this prevents fuel completely blocking air access through the air conducting tube.

Most smokers now also have a protective cage to ensure the beekeeper doesn’t get burnt when handling their smoker (ordinarily your smoke shouldn’t be hot enough to harm you but we’ll get into that later). This often encompasses a hook directly underneath the spout so that you can hang your smoker on your brood box whilst inspecting.

There are a lot of different smokers out on the market, we personally use the Rauchboy Smokers, which have a removable internal chamber which not only ensures a constant circulation of oxygen but eases the filling of the fuel chamber making it a much safer process.

How Do Bees Respond to Smoke?

Appropriate use of smoke will make your honeybees react in quite a predictable way. For countless decades beekeepers have used smoke in various forms to placate their bees, but why do they respond in such a methodical manner?

The use of smoke is theorised to mimic a forest fire that they may encounter in the wild. Although we now keep our bees housed and comfortable, they continue to have the evolutionary instinct to survive. This stimulates the bees to gorge on their stores, in preparation to leave and make a new home (they will need to be well fed to produce enough wax). This allows the beekeeper to inspect the hive whilst the bees are sufficiently distracted.

Another benefit of using smoke is that is masks pheromones. In some colonies when the hive is being disturbed by the beekeeper, guard bees will emit isopentyl acetate (from the stinger shaft) and 2-heptanone (from mandibular glands). These are strong smelling pheromones, even detectable to the beekeeper, who often mistakes the acidic, lemony smells as venom (which is actually odourless). The release of these pheromones produces a domino effect throughout the hive, each bee exposed will soon be releasing these pheromones and before you know it, they’re pinging off your veil and stinging at your ankles. Smoke temporarily blunts their awareness giving the beekeeper a much more pleasant experience.

A worker showing their stinger

Lighting and Using Your Smoker

When you are first lighting your smoker you want to get an actual fire going with an initial very flammable fuel, a lot of beekeepers choose to use old newspaper lying about. Loosely compact it and place into the chamber carefully, softly squeezing the bellows to keep the fire alight. This is the most dangerous part of lighting your smoker, if you don’t have a removable internal chamber ensure you stand downwind so the flames do not catch you.

Whilst the fire is still going start adding your smoker fuel, a little bit at first and strongly pump the bellows to ensure the fuel is catching. You’ll start to have a thick plume of greyish white smoke, an encouraging sign, keep adding more fuel, ensuring that the smoke is still being produced. Adding too much at once will completely snuff out the initial flame, you want embers to be continuing to smoulder at the bottom, but releasing cool white smoke, dampened by the density of the fuel. Once you have filled the barrel, allow a a minute or so to ensure that your fuel is still burning before closing the lid (and therefore restricting a lot of oxygen).

A very common mistake is that you heat your fuel far too much, if flames are coming out of your smoker the bees are certainly not going to be happy! Puff some smoke onto your hands, the smoke should be densely white and cool in temperature (well, at least not very warm).

When you’re prepared to do your inspection, it may be a good idea to give a few strong puffs at the entrance so that the smoke can be distributed throughout the hive. Then as you open your hive, gently puff the smoke under the crown board, and then directly on the top bars to encourage groups of bees away to make your manipulations easier and less likely to crush one of your bees.

Keeping Your Smoker Lit

You may not need to have your smoker last hours like a commercial bee farmer, but it is a little bit annoying when your bees aren’t having a good day and you find that your smoker has completely gone out despite still having lots of fuel in the barrel.

If you use your smoker infrequently (or have it lit for standby emergencies) you will still have to pump the bellows every now and then to ensure that oxygen gets to the embers to facilitate the burning. Lack of oxygen will eventually kill the flame.

Sometimes Less is More

Most bees these days are bred to be very pleasant in temperament making them much easier to handle. When using smoke it should be used sparingly to move the bees off the top bars, minimizing any risk to your bees or triggering more pheromones to be released.

An excess use of smoke can be detrimental to the bees, especially if you’re nearing the end of your fuel and you’re really just puffing ash onto the bees. Some beekeepers have also mentioned that excessive smoke can affect the taste of any unsealed honey, though ‘honey barbecue’ is quite a nice combo, we’ve never actually experienced this ourselves!

With time and experience you’ll come to know how much smoke is appropriate during your manipulations.

Smoker Fuels

Now there are a lot of possible smoker fuels out there, essentially you want something that burns slowly and doesn’t produce too much tar. Remember, you’ll also be inhaling the smoke of what you’re burning, so perhaps don’t go burning anything imbued with chemicals. Some fuels burn a lot quicker than others, so it may be that you need a mix of fuel to keep your smoker lit for a good amount of time, for example wood chips will burn hot, so it will be advised to dampen with partially dried grass trimmings and pine needles. Some people find that certain fuels also sting their eyes and produce an awful scent, so you may have to go through a few before finding what suits you.

  • Corrugated Cardboard (be careful, some are fire retardant now)
  • Egg Boxes
  • Burlap sacks
  • Dried Pine Needles
  • Wood pellets
  • Twine
  • Pet Bedding (wood shavings)
  • Grass/Hedge trimmings
  • Dried Mulch
  • Dried Citrus Peel
  • Dried Aromatics
  • Hay
  • Dried Cow Poo (not tried and tested by us)

If you are using a fuel that is very loose such as wood shavings, before closing your smoker you should put another loosely scrunched up piece of newspaper on the top to prevent shavings/sawdust flying out of your smoker. Of course you can also purchase these commercially prepared smoker fuel.

Playing with Fire

Now just a short note on health and safety. Here in the UK, we’re very unlikely to have the extreme dry conditions that increase the likelihood of the devastating fires we’ve seen in the US and Australia. However, that doesn’t mean that we can play it fast and loose with smokers. Before leaving your apiary you must ensure that your smoker is no longer lit, preferably this can be done by stuffing fresh grass into the spout of the smoker to cut off the oxygen supply.

You must always be careful what you are burning too, if you are using man made materials for example, you need to make sure that you’re not inhaling any chemicals used in the production of those materials. Some beekeepers often travel in their car with their recently lit smoker rocking around in the backseat, inhaling smoke of any kind is not good for your health so be wary and think about getting a smoker box.

Propolis sometimes can appear very flamelike

In Summary

Smokers are an ingenious tool to be used with caution and knowledge. Some people prefer not to use smoke at all which is fine, but most beginners may want to start of with using smoke initially. Once you are more experienced you may start using less and less smoke as you become confident. Smoke is also a tool that benefits the bees, it lets you move them without physically using your hands (especially when your hive is very populous and make it very difficult to maneuver around groups of bees gathered on the top bars), therefore it is much safer and less likely for an accidental crush to occur.

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