A bee smoker is one of the most ubiquitous tools associated with the beekeeping profession. Even the earliest beekeepers, the ancient Egyptians, are thought to have utilized smoke in their attempts to soothe and manage their bees. While there is a range of theories regarding the function of the smoke in calming the bees, the one I ascribe to and share with those that ask, points to the smoke’s role in disrupting the spread of pheromones throughout the hive. Honeybees primarily communicate with one another through the use of complex dance movements and pheromones. By introducing smoke to the hive and disrupting the spread of the alarm pheromone, the beekeeper effectively inhibits communication and coordinated response from the hive’s guard bees.
The alarm pheromone released by honeybees is composed of isopentyl or isoamyl acetate. When a worker bee stings, the pheromone is released and marks the intruder as a threat. The released pheromone acts as a target for other bees, which will launch a concerted effort to dispel the intruder from the hive. Isopentyl or isoamyl acetate has a strong odor that is often compared to the smell of bananas, so if you’re ever near a hive and smell bananas, there’s a good chance the bees have identified you as a threat and are doing their part to notify the rest of the hive. Since bees largely communicate through the use of pheromones, it’s common for beekeepers to see worker bees fanning their wings in the hive. The fanning behavior exhibited by honeybees serves several important functions. First, the fanning allows for the distribution of the queen’s pheromone, which helps the hive to know the colony is queenright and healthy. Without the queen’s pheromone, the hive will take contingency efforts to ensure the continuity of the hive including building emergency queen cells from newly laid eggs. In addition to the queen’s pheromone, the fanning helps to distribute other communicative scents, like isopentyl or isoamyl acetate, important to the continuation of the hive. Second, the fanning allows for effective regulation of the hive’s temperature. When it’s too hot, the bees will fan to create airflow in the hive; it’s also common for bees to “beard” or congregate on the outside of a hive if it’s too hot. Lastly, the bees will fan to reduce the water content of collected nectar, transforming the liquid sugar solution into honey. This fanning behavior and the pheromones that they spread, is essential to the bees’ ability to effectively communicate the greater needs of the hive. Learning about this process, and how bees communicate, in general, is key to understanding the role of the smoker in the beekeeper’s toolbox.
While beekeepers all over the world burn different materials in their smokers, the idea is the same: create smoke to disrupt the hive’s ability to communicate danger. Some of the most commonly used smoker fuel is pine straw, cotton, burlap, and wood pellets. The most important thing is that the smoke emitting from the smoker is plentiful, cool and that it will not harm the bees. It’s best to avoid treated wood or fallen fauna with too many oils that will create very hot smoke or release chemicals into the air. The beekeeper’s smoker continues to be one of the prized pieces of beekeeping equipment; the technology has barely changed in thousands of years of use, although our understanding of honeybees and their behavior has considerably improved.
While honeybees are well-studied in the modern era, there are still ancient beekeeping practices that are being re-discovered and incorporated in today’s apiculture. By examining ancient practices and long-continued traditions, we’re able to better understand honeybee behavior and act as better stewards to our pollinating sisters. The bee smoker has stood the test of time and has earned its place as a symbol synonymous with the art of keeping bees.