Why Do Beekeepers Smoke Their Hive?

February 19, 2018

When I talk to people about PureBee, people are often surprised to learn that I am actually a beekeeper myself. I have always wanted to share the happiness that bees have given me with others through all the awesome products (especially my Body Scrub) that you can make from honey and other bee products. I am not only interested in cosmetics but also in bees and beekeeping.

The first question I usually get once people learn that I am a beekeeper is: How often do you get stung? It is a fair question when you think that one single beehive can have up to 50,000 residents in the summer. I always disappoint with my answer when I tell people that I hardly get stung!

In the 10+ years that I have been doing this I have got stung maybe 4 or 5 times. Nearly everyone is surprised of that low number, considering I've had contact with millions of bees over the years. Most people are scared of stinging insects and they don't differentiate between honeybees, wasps, hornets, etc. For them, they are all the same evil dangerous insects. But honeybees (at least the species I work with) are in general not too aggressive an insect, when compared to wasps and others. The reason for that is simple: bees die when they sting, so stinging remains their last weapon.

Beekeeper smoking his hive

But nevertheless they will sting if they feel threatened and opening their hive and taking their most precious possession, the hard-earned honey, is definitely a threat to them! For that reason, beekeepers found a way to calm the bees. That's where the smoke comes in! But what does the smoke exactly do? The reason is not that they can't see anything because it is too smoky or that they just fly far away because they get scared. The answer really is more simple and actually similar to our reaction to a fire as a human would be.

The honeybees associate that there must be a fire when smoke enters the hive and just like we would do when we would smell smoke in our home, we would try to save immediately as many valuables as we could. Honeybees do exactly the same. Besides the queen, the most valuable thing they possess is their honey.

Without it, they would not survive the winter. So every bee tries to take as much honey as they can, and they do that by eating it.

That means, first of all, they are busy eating as much as they can and filling their honey stomach. At that point, they pretty much don't mind you opening their hive, as they are busy saving the honey. After eating as much honey as they can, I imagine it is pretty much the same as when we eat too much on Thanksgiving. They are calm and really full which makes it less likely that they will make the effort to sting.

The tradition of using smoke to calm the bees goes back 5,000 years. We can find illustrations from ancient Egypt of beekeepers using ceramic pots and pans and probably burned cow dung to create a plume of smoke. Today that method has hardly changed (even though we do not use cow dung anymore). Today we use modern single-handheld smokers, with a bellows attached to a burner (some beekeepers also use smoker pipes). Many types of fuel can be used in a smoker, a lot of beekeepers use tobacco burlap or pine needles.

Visualization of honey harvest in tube sticks. This picture was taken in the sun temple of Niuserre in Abusir.

We use paper egg cartons and hemp most of the time. The fuel in the smoker's burner burns slowly because there is only a small amount of oxygen inside until a squeeze of the bellows provides fresh air and pumps out the smoke. In this way, the fuel of one load can last for several hours.




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