Living With A Smoker

What else can we do?

1I wish there was an alternative to smokers and smoking a bee hive. I have reasons that I will discuss later. But first I need to prepare you for my thoughts. Maybe, over the years, I have evolved into some kind of crabby honey bee complainer. If that is the case I don’t really know exactly when it happened. I don’t think it was abrupt. In past articles I have written about some of the cruddy things that have happened in my bee life – things that could make a rational person wonder why anyone would ever continue to work with these specialized bugs, but continue I will. And I would like you to know that my complaining does not mean that I have any plans for quitting anything beekeeping, but that I do expect to continue complaining – apparently even increasing in my grumble rate a bit. I have my reasons.

In my own bee-life experiences, I have seen a lot of changes and though I freely admit that some of those changes have been great, I must say that not all changes have been so good. Well, maybe at first flush they didn’t appear to be good, but I am now realizing that “good” is a moving, flexible kind of target. Early in my life it was good to drink whole milk. Not now, and no, smoking cigarettes is not good for your after-dinner digestion. We used to think it was.

Within beekeeping, take Varroa for instance . . . How can I rank the horribleness that Varroa has caused bee-keeping when presently Varroa is at the very heart of the biggest boom that U.S. beekeeping has ever experienced? If honey bee populations had not declined precipitously, would we now have this wonderful influx of new bee people? Would all honey bee meetings be packed out the way they are? Would the public still be sympathetic, and would cities all across the U.S. still be inviting bees into town? I have no way of knowing but I do know that Varroa has single handedly put our craft on a different trajectory than the one it was on in 1984. Am I saying that Varroa is a good thing? No, Varroa is not a good thing, but I am saying that Varroa and our current related beekeeping problems have spawned some unexpectedly good, even very good, attributes in modern-day beekeeping.   So for many beekeepers there are two versions: Pre-Varroa and Post Varroa. Pre-Varroa beekeeping is filled with information and recommendations that simply do not apply to proper beekeeping any more. For instance, you can no longer buy cyanide from bee supply companies. In the 1960s you could. But everything else has changed, too, not just beekeeping. Any slide rule users still out there? Who of you still dials a telephone? Oh . . . and wait a few days while I write you a letter and drop it in the mail. All those years ago when you and I were dialing phones and talking on party lines, did I ever have any notion that, one day, I would walk around with my phone in my shirt pocket? Nope – never had the thought once. So it is with beekeeping.  Varroa nearly killed us but the episode redesigned and restructured beekeeping as an industry. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “How can it be, in a world where half the things a man knows at 20 are no longer true at 40 – and half the things he knows at 40 hadn’t been discovered when he was 20?1”

The unchanged bee smoker

And through the entire paradigm-shifting, Varroa-initiated event, there is the bee hive smoker – essentially oddly unchanged. To work bees, you just build a fire in a smudge pot with any readily available fuel that will produce white cool smoke and then you puff smoke into the colony. Well, that’s certainly technically complex. Out of all the changes in beekeeping, techniques for using a smoker are exactly as they always have been. As I have already written, I wish there was an alternative to smokers and smoking a bee hive.

If you have been a beekeeper longer than about twenty minutes, you should already know the fundamentals of smokers and smoker lighting. At some meetings, there are even smoker lighting contests.  Who of you does not have a “favorite” smoker fuel? Like a fine wine, if doing serious bee work, I like to use a blend. I start with a piece of paper. As the flame catches, I add pine needles and puff up white, billowing smoke until the flames come from the smoker barrel; then another charge or two of needles on top of that and puff the smoker bellows back to a flame. As the flame dies back, I add either thick planer shaving or dry chipped mulch and puff until I get good smoke flow. Then lastly, to keep wood chips from blowing out of the nozzle, I add a final charge of pine needles or dry grass clippings. This concoction will burn for several hours and can easily be recharged on top of the hot coal bed in the smoker. If I am doing quick bee inspections, I just stay at the paper and pine needle level – quick, white smoke that burns out readily. My way is not necessarily correct for all of you, but these are the fuels I have at hand that provide a dependable source of smoke for me.

Beehive smokers and their use are at the very core of beekeeping and they have been at that core point since our earliest days of honey robbing. There are all kinds of varieties and sizes of smokers but they all require the same basic procedure – build a fire, snuff it out and puff smoke from its embers.  Indeed, it is the very trademark of beekeeping. Recently, we were clearing and cleaning my recently departed Dad’s disheveled shop, and a Woodman smoker turned up.  It was like an old friend. It represented hours and hours of bee work from years gone by. We kept it as though it was one of the greatest treasures from Dad’s estate. Outside of beekeeping, many other people seem to feel that way, too. How many common smokers have you or I seen in antique shops as though they were highly coveted?  Even burned up and worn out, they still bring about one-third to one-half of their original selling value.

But as with so, so many other things in life, as we have learned more, we realized changes might be need-ed. But as far as smokers and their use are concerned, I don’t know of anything truly new on the horizon. We seemed to be destined to use them for years to come. I know that all bee supply companies either manufacture smokers, or at least, sell them. Other companies are presently offering new and improved smoker models. I have four or five smokers that I plan to continue using. So there . . . we have used smokers for a long time and will probably continue to use them for a long time, but being the complainer and whiner that I am, can I very, very tactfully ask, “Should we?”

I have absolutely no science, no citations and precious few examples to support a distant, foggy concern that I have about smokers and their use. I know, I know, we have nothing else to use, and the bees will kill us if we open their hive without smoke, but bronchial asthma and I have been lifelong companions. I have never had a life-threatening experience, but I can – nearly on command – come up with restricted breathing issues. When I am in and around bee smoke (any smoke for that matter), I feel more than just a bit threatened. I become wheezy with watery eyes and have trouble getting enough breath. I have smoked colonies hundreds of times and plan to do it hundreds more, but is this procedure as benign as it has always appeared to be? What should we do with the following information? Abundant citations are easy to find. Have a look at the literature for yourself.

Using dry leaves to generate bee smoke

3“The smoke from burning leaves contains a number of toxic and/or irritating particles and gases. The tiny particles contained in smoke from burning leaves can accumulate in the lungs and stay there for years. These particles can increase the risk of respiratory infection, as well as reduce the amount of air reaching the lungs. For those who already suffer from asthma and other breathing disorders, leaf burning can be extremely hazardous.

Moist leaves, which tend to burn slowly, give off more smoke than do dry leaves. These moist leaves are more likely to also give off hydrocarbons, which irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Some of these hydrocarbons are known to be carcinogenic.

Carbon monoxide is an invisible gas that results from incomplete burning, such as with smoldering leaf piles. After inhaling carbon monoxide gas, it is absorbed into the blood, where it reduces the amount of oxygen that the red blood cells can carry. Children, seniors, smokers and people suffering from chronic lung and heart dis-ease are more susceptible than healthy adults to carbon monoxide effects.”

Concerning my wood chips that I frequently use

“The tiny air-borne specks of pollution known as particulate matter, or PM, produced by wood-burning stoves appear to be especially harmful to human health. Small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, they carry high levels of chemicals linked to cardio-pulmonary diseases and cancer, and they can damage DNA and activate genes in hazardous ways comparable to cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

Exposure to the particulates in smoke irritates the lungs and air passages, causing swelling that obstructs breathing. Wood smoke can worsen asthma, and is especially harmful to children and older people. It also has been linked to respiratory infections, adverse changes to the immune system, and early deaths among people with cardiovascular or lung problems”.

This is not a “cause” for me

I only did a quick literature check on using pine needles as a smoke source, but the literature was vague and most citations focused mainly on burning pine wood; but absolutely, it was not easy to find good reasons for breathing pine needle smoke. Terpenes in pine needle smoke seemed to cause the problems. I tried to find sources for reasonably safe smoke sources but so far, I have not found anything – not a thing. Again, my comments in this article do not represent science and I am not promoting vanquishing the smoker to the ash pile; but I sense that this longtime, universal smoking procedure may have a darker side.

What effects does smoke have on bees?

To my knowledge, that question has no definitive answer. If I am able to readily find health references on harmful effects on humans and animals, why would it not logically follow that smoking bees has some harmful effects on bees? As I discussed above, we all have our favorite smoke sources, but no one has ever ranked those sources for bee safety. Why would they? It’s only smoke! If bee colonies are frequently smoked (commercial colonies), are those colonies sicklier than “unsmoked” colonies.  I have no idea.

As long as there has been human civilization, there has been fire (and smoke). Bee colonies have been smoked millions of times and life has gone on for a long time, but how significant are the effects of smoke on our bees? I suspect the harmful results of hive management would be much greater if the colony was not subdued some before manipulating.

I doubt that smoking bee colonies is good for the colony

But overall I really doubt that smoking the colony is good for its health but I simply don’t know how bad it is for the health of the colony. Clearly, if there are any effects they must be chronic in nature for it is a rare colony that has been literally smoked to death.  If there are chronic harmful effects, wouldn’t that be interesting?  Really interesting?

My new plan?

I really don’t have a different plan other than using the least amount of smoke possible. I’ve already been doing that for years. But every time my bees and I breathe smoke, I will suspect that it really is not a great health benefit for either of us – but I’m just an old complaining beekeeper trying to catch my asthmatic breath.

2~Dr. James E. Tew, State Specialist, Beekeeping, The Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University; Emeritus Faculty, The Ohio State University.;; One Tew Bee RSS Feed (www.;; @onetewbee Youtube:

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