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.

Beginner’s FAQ: Beekeeper Starter Kit Visual Guide

So what do you need to get started with beekeeping? Here is our visual guide!

The Physical

  1. Smoker
  2. Complete Hive and Stand
  3. Hive Tool (hatched queen cells not recommended :))
  4. Nuc of bees
  5. Beesuit & Gloves
  6. Feed
  7. Varroa Treatment

The Mental?

  1. Books
  2. Join your local association
  3. Do a beekeeping course

Last year we broke down the everything you need to get started with beekeeping and their related costs so we highly recommend that you take a look here.

Beginner’s FAQ: Honey 101

It’s what many beekeepers are looking for, the exciting feeling to crack open your hive to see your supers filled to the brim with honey. Your bees have brought in the liquid gold – Honey. But what is honey exactly and how is it even made by the bees? This is Honey 101.

A queen looking for more space amongst the stores

80% to 18%

As a beginner you may have already come across the distinction between nectar and honey, one is starkly more desirable than the other if you are thinking of beekeeping to harvest the fruits of your bee’s labour (and your own labour too).

But all honey starts off as nectar, a sweet watery solution produced by flowers surrounding your apiary. Nectar is usually colourless and contains approximately 80% water and 20% of the complex sugar, sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, a complex sugar composed of glucose and fructose with a glycosidic bond.

A single worker bee travels from flower to flower, pausing momentarily just to gather nectar through their proboscis, their naturally engineered straw-like tongue. The nectar is then stored in the ‘honey gut’ or the crop, where it is safe from being directly ingested by the foraging bee itself. Unsurprisingly, it is in the honey gut that the nectar starts it’s journey to becoming honey, the viscose solution we all know that contains around only 18% water.

A good view of the proboscis

Nature’s Chemists

The forager bee comes back to the hive once their honey gut is full of nectar, ready to be processed by their sisters. The nectar gets regurgitated over and over between the house bees. You may hear beekeepers exclaiming that honey is ‘bee vomit’ which although is quite true, it is also the essential process to chemically break down the nectar. Each time the nectar is passed between one bee to another, they add an enzyme called ‘invertase’ that is produced by the salivary glands to facilitate the break down of sucrose into the two simple monosaccharide sugars that it is molecularly composed of, fructose and glucose. This process is called ‘hydrolysis’.

Why would bees go through the process of hydrolysis? Well, by breaking down the sucrose into a blend of fructose and glucose makes it much easier to consume, it contains much more sugar than nectar therefore giving more energy to the bees (but taking up vastly less space in a cell) and of course, the reduction of water content allows the resulting honey to be stored without being spoiled, indefinitely if left undisturbed.

When the nectar has reached about 20% water content, the house bee will deposit the ‘almost honey’ into the cells. The bees will then fan their wings around the cells in order to evaporate more water from the nectar. Once the honey has ripened (at around 18% water content), the bees will put an air tight wax seal on the cell, stored for future use or to be extracted by the beekeeper.

Due to the lack of water in honey, no bacteria, fungi or even microbes could contaminate it. However, honey left out in the open, unsealed will draw in moisture from the air, making it susceptible to unwanted contaminants!

A brood frame with ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ cappings – both perfectly normal

Crytallized Honey

Now that we understand the molecular structure of honey (a mix of fructose, glucose and water) we can better understand why the crystallization process occurs. Natural honey in its simplest description is over saturated sugar water. This means it contains far more sugar than the water can hold, making it an ‘unstable’ solution. The crystallization process is actually a great indicator that your honey is a natural product that hasn’t been adulterated. 

The exact percentages of fructose and glucose will differ according to nectar source. It is the glucose in honey that causes crystallization due to its lower solubility, it separates from the water in honey and forms tiny crystals that sets off a kind of domino effect of slow crystallization. If you have more glucose in your honey then it will set faster than if you have a higher percentage of fructose. Crystallization occurs even on the comb, making it almost impossible to extract without melting down the whole frame.

Beekeepers have incredibly learnt to harness the crystallization process to produce ‘soft set’ honey. A process that uses a honey with a high glucose content (such as oilseed rape honey) as a seed which is then mixed with another honey for a long duration, resulting in a smooth, creamy honey (the presence of the fine crystals is practically undetectable). This also means that the larger crystals will not form in the honey, because the process of controlled crystallization has already occurred.

Honey in the process of being creamed

In Summary

Just like how the crystallization process varies because of the foraged nectar, so does the the taste, colour and even texture. It is amazing to see your honey side by side, it gives you such an amazing insight into the variation out there. Being a beekeeper gives us many delights and being able to harvest honey is just one aspect of this amazing hobby.

We hope that you have started to feel excited about what this year will bring to you, hopefully a few jars of honey will be on the cards.

Beginner’s FAQ: What Books Should I Read?

It’s not imperative to read all the beekeeping books out there (and believe me, there’s a lot!) but it’s always nice to read different ways of doing things and learning more about the complexity of the honeybee. This will give you a better understanding of why and how bees produce honey and how you can attempt to maximise your haul.

We’ve broken down the books into some subtopics that you may want to explore further.

Practical Beekeeping

BBKA Guide to Beekeeping – Ivor Davis and Roger Cullum-Kenyon

Guide To Bees and Honey – Ted Hooper

Collins Beekeeper’s Bible

Beekeeping A Seasonal Guide – Ron Brown

Beekeeping A Practical Guide – Roger Patterson

The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver – James E. Tew

Honey, Beeswax and Propolis

Bees and Honey – David Cramp & Jenni Fleetwood

Manuka: The Biography of an Extraordinary Honey – Cliff Van Eaton

Heather Honey, An Anthology of Works – Ian Copinger

Beeswax Alchemy – Petra Ahnert

Queen Rearing

In Search of the Perfect Bee – Brother Adam

Queen Bee: Biology, Rearing and Breeding – David Richard Woodward

Microscopy

Practical Microscopy – Bob Maurer

Pollen Microscopy – Norman John Chapman

Bee Diseases

Honeybee Veterinary Medicine – Nicolas Vidal-Naquet

Honey Bee Pests, Predators and Diseases Book – Kim Flottum and Roger Morse

Managing Bee Health: A Practical Guide for Beekeepers – John Carr

Planting for Pollinators

Plants for Bees – W.D.J Kirk and F.N Howes

Planting for Honeybees: The Grower’s Guide to Creating a Buzz – Sarah Wyndham Lewis

The Bee Bible: 50 Ways to Keep Bees Buzzing – Sally Coulthard

The Bee-Friendly Garden –  Gretchen LeBuhn & Kate Frey

Natural Beekeeping

Natural Beekeeping with the Warre Hive – David Heaf

Top Bar Beekeeping – Les Crowder

The Idle Beekeeper – Bill Anderson

Just for Fun

A Sting in the Tale – Dave Goulson

The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

Honeybee Democracy – Thomas D.Seeley

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees – Thor Hanson

The Honey Factory: Inside the Ingenious World of Bees –  Diedrich Steen & Jürgen Tautz

For Little Beekeepers

The Honeybee – Kirsten Hall

The Beeman –  Laurie Krebs

Little Honey Bee – Katie Haworth

Little Yellow Bee – Ginger Swift

UnBEElieveables – Douglas Florian


Well what do you think? Have we missed out any beekeeping books that you think should be on the list, just let us know! Just remember, beekeeping is a hobby that should be fun so enjoy reading up about it.

Beginner’s FAQ: Do I Need to Join an Association?

We are often asked if it’s mandatory to join your local beekeeping association, the short answer is – No. However there are many reasons that you may want to think about joining up with your association, and we’re going to explore that today.

There is a long list of things to do before receiving your bees and starting your life as a beekeeper. Joining your association just seems like another tick box, but do you really need to join? You can choose to not be affiliated with the British Beekeeping Association, but there are so many benefits to joining that it is hard to pass it up. Let’s take a look.

Community & Support

This will vary depending on which association you have joined but by and large the community of beekeepers are friendly and supporting of new members. You will likely meet people who will have a range of beekeeping experience and will find many people to learn from (or even become your mentor).

Most associations run a beginner beekeeping course that run throughout the winter and the season, classes will be conducted in their chosen meeting place and at their association apiary (or maybe even online these days). It is a great way to get to grips with beekeeping as you have a wealth of knowledge supporting you.

You will be able to take advantage of possible ‘isolation apiaries’ for example if one of your colonies re-queens itself and shows bad temperament then you may be able to access a site away from the public.

Will you find yourself a mentor in your association?

Liability Insurance

Membership with the BBKA will cover you for third party public and product liability insurance for up to £10,000,000 (with an excess of £250 for third party property damages, paid for by the member). So what does that mean? It means that any damages caused due to your beekeeping activities will be covered. Whether that be collecting a swarm, conducting an experience day or selling your honey at a market.

However, if beekeeping activities become a significant part of your income then you will need commercial insurance and have to look beyond the BBKA.

The liability insurance does not cover any losses you suffer personally due to bee diseases, adverse weather or equipment theft. These are optional add-ons though at a very reasonable rate.

Moving bees can be a little hazardous!

Exclusive Discounts

Receive a 5% discount off National Bee Supplies to start your beekeeping journey for all members of BBKA. Individual associations may have also negotiated with suppliers to gain an exclusive discount for their members but you will have to enquire with them personally!

Informative

As a member of the BBKA you will receive a copy of the BBKA News, an extremely informative and up to date magazine to keep you in touch with the latest developments of research. In particular, their monthly section ‘in The Apiary’ is very helpful for the beekeeper that is starting out, it will give you a pretty in depth look into what you should be looking out for in the month and how to tackle common problems that usually occur.

In fact, February’s edition has a piece written by none other than Master Beekeeper Celia Davis on how to get started with beekeeping. In addition there are some very wise words from David Williamson on ‘Becoming a Beekeeper’.

Who knows, maybe you will be the next one writing an article for the magazine!

In Conclusion

For such a reasonable membership subscription the benefits are definitely extensive. Mind you, we haven’t covered all of them, but the reasons that may be important to those of a beginner. The BBKA has usually at least one association per county, and represent thousands of beekeepers throughout the nation. They have an unceasing amount of resources to take advantage of and a wonderful community surrounding them.

Learn more on BBKA’s Official Website: https://www.bbka.org.uk/