One of the first jobs Mr. F gave me while I was a beekeeper in training was to smoke the bees. He taught me how to give a puff at the entrance and then wait a minute before lifting the roof on the hive and giving another puff or two, creating an aura of smoke in both the top and bottom of the hive.
Smoke calms the bees and prevents them from turning aggressive during an inspection. In nature bees make their homes in hollow trees, so a fire would be a devastating event. Smelling the smoke alerts the bees that this is a possibility. They begin to fan furiously at the entrance to keep the hive cool and they also begin to collect their most precious commodity – honey. Bees react by going to honey storage cells and engorging their honey stomach with the rich golden nectar. This is in response to their instinctive fear of fire as they prepare to fly to a new home. A bee with a honey tummy full finds it more difficult to bend her abdomen around in order to use her stinger and is much less inclined to use it than a bee not engorged.
With all the commotion of filing tummies with honey, cooling the hive and preparing to abandon ship the bees are quite oblivious to the beekeeper. When the beekeeper has completed his or her work the bees determine the crisis to be over and return the honey to the comb and carry on with their days work. No honey is lost in the inspection of a hive.
Smoking the bees really works. I wouldn’t think about opening one of my hives without first giving a few puffs of cool smoke into the hive. It is a tempting shortcut when I know my bees are sweet and gentle, but a shortcut not worth the time saved. Chances are without smoking, the bees will become angry and I will be forced to close the hive and return for inspection another day, causing more disruption for the bees and more time spent in the bee yard. I do smoke – my bees!
Smoker photo courtesy of Alexander Wild