Some common themes of misconceptions I hear about the bee smoker and why we use it:
1. It puts the bees to sleep/makes them lethargic.
No, it doesn't. In fact, quite the opposite.
2. It makes them high.
My job would be a LOT more interesting if I got bees high all day.
3. It makes the bees think their house is on fire, and they busy themselves eating all the honey in a hive, and ignore you instead.
This is one that even the most seasoned of beekeepers report, so I'm hesitant to debunk it. Let's just say my vast experience of observation has not shown this in any real meaningful way.
So what does it do? In short, it interferes with the communication system of a hive. Let's first review how a hive defends itself.
Pheromones are critical in a hive’s defense system. After a worker bee stings a predator, she flies away, leaving her stinger behind in the skin of the unfortunate animal or human. In the process, her stinger rips out her insides, and a pheromone is released warning her sisters of the danger. That's why a careless intruder may suffer numerous stings if a honey bee colony is disturbed. Further, the bees at the entrance of a hive, the defender bees, can release this pheromone if they feel the colony is being attacked, sending out hordes of bees to defend the colony. Many report this pheromone smells of bananas, and you may therefore hear many warnings of the dangers of eating bananas near bee hives. I actually don’t think the pheromone smells at all of bananas. To me, it has a sort of musty, chemical odor that stings my nose a bit and gives me a dull headache.
What the smoker does therefore, is interfere with the delivery of the pheromones to the rest of the colony. The message may be sent, but it's masked by the smoky and strong aroma. The bees are none the wiser, and we can do our work safely, protecting not only the beekeeper but the bees themselves, since the act of stinging will end a honey bee's life. There's not a lot of 'magic' in a bee smoker. If you checked my smoker on any given day you would find leaves, pieces of mesquite and oak wood, leaves, and probably a lot of Amazon cardboard boxes.
A beekeeper will apply a few puff of smoke at the entrance to cover the pheromone of the defender bees, and can also mask the pheromone if and when we take a sting or two. I often work gloveless, and a shrewd observer will note whenever I take a sting to the hand, as I always hold my hand in the path of the smoke for a few brief moments, masking the danger pheromone.
It's worth noting that smoking bees is not a new phenomenon. Images of Ancient Egyptian beekeepers using smoke from incense in hives have been found in temples more than 2500 years old. While the true 'reason' smoke works to calm a hive wasn't truly understood until the 20th century, it's clear that these ancient beekeepers saw a connection between using fire and smoke and the ability to work with bees more easily.
I originally got into beekeeping as a way to have more interesting subjects to talk about other than work at parties and on dates, and now you too can wow your friends/dates with your knowledge of bees and smokers. :)
Speaking of, if you want to learn more about honey bees and beekeeping, fall is the perfect time to start. Beekeepers generally start new hives in the spring, so I always recommend folks start their education in the fall to start to prepare. We've got two ways to learn, no matter your location. We have one in person class left at the Honey Ranch this month, and we have a beautiful 4 part beekeeping series + e-book if you aren't local or just prefer a online class with forever access. Keep scrolling to learn more about both, plus a really generous discount on our online class! Questions/concerns/hesitations that have been holding you back? Hit reply and Ill do my best to help!
Next time we talk I will have a baby (!!!). Til the other side folks..
For the bees,