The smoker is an essential part of a beekeepers tool kit, and learning how to light a bee smoker is a core beekeeping skill.
The reasons why beekeepers use smokers will be covered in another post, however, the intent here is to quickly cover how to go about lighting and operating a smoker.
There are many ways to do it, but if you’re a beginner and you follow the ideas presented here, then you should be ahead of the curve!
What you need
There are several different varieties on the market and while they vary a lot in price, their function is essentially the same. Typically the more expensive smokers are made with more durable bellows, stronger materials and should stand up to commercial use for longer.
Smokers such as this Beeco smoker are great quality Australian made smokers, and are recommended by a lot of beekeepers.
One feature that we have only seen on the more expensive smokers are separate air in and out valves for the bellows going into the can. This is a good feature as it can prevent hot ash being sucked out of the smoker and either into the bellows or onto the ground.
We do prefer to use the smoker linked above, but before we upgraded, we were still quite happy with our cheap smoker.
Smokers also come in different sizes, with the larger ‘jumbo’ smokers more suited to commercial beekeepers who need their smokers to run all day.
More often than not you can just pick up whatever leaf litter is laying around and use this in your smoker. That said though, it does pay to come prepared with smoker fuel prior to inspecting your hive as some days the ground may be wet and you’ll have a hard time finding anything to use.
Instead, what we recommend is carrying a container with dry fuel in your beekeeping kit.
Every beekeeper will have their own favourite smoker fuel, but one that seems to be popular around the world is pine needles. These light up easily, pack down well and are readily available, being found in most regions. In theory, you can use just about any dried out plant matter or kindling. Some will not be very pleasant smelling when smouldering, but so long as it is dry enough it should work.
For Aussies, you should try using some dried Xanthorrhoea (grass tree/balga bush) leaves.
Another material to try is hessian. Our mate the Bush Bee Man uses this and it stays lit really well with minimal effort.
You may also want to bring along some sheets of newspaper with you as well. These are useful for other beekeeping tasks such as uniting colonies, and when scrunched up can be handy for getting your smoker going.
You’ll need something to light up with. We find the long-nosed BBQ lighters are very good.
Their long reach allows you to light down to the bottom of the smoker without burning yourself. It is handy though to carry a box of matches with you as well, as if the BBQ lighter runs out of gas you’ll be stuck rubbing sticks together.
A cheat for igniting your smoker can also be to use some lighter fluid or methylated spirits. Simply splash a little in the smoker prior to lighting. Be careful with this of course!
Jet lighters or propane torches also get used by some beekeepers to help heat things up quickly.
Doesn’t necessarily have to be a hive tool, just an object that is rigid, will fit inside a smoker and can handle a bit of heat.
So you’ve gathered the above ingredients and are ready to light your smoker.
There are some safety tips mentioned below, but I’ll touch on an important one here first.
Before lighting your smoker ensure you are permitted to use one in your location for that particular day.
Fire restrictions apply in certain regions.
In addition, have some kind of a fire fighting plan in case a fire gets away from you.
From there, the next step is to ensure your smoker is empty.
Invariably you may have forgotten to empty it last time you used it.
Trying to light a smoker that is already half full of ash/junk is probably one of the most common things that will lead you to be frustrated with the lighting process.
Just empty it out and start fresh!
Light ‘er up!
With your empty smoker place either one sheet of loosely scrunched up newspaper or about 5 cm in depth of pine needles (or whatever kindling you have available) into the smoker’s cylinder.
Spark up your lighter and ignite this material from the bottom if you can. If using matches, it can help to light your material outside of the smoker and then place it into the can when it is burning away consistently.
Once it is ignited give some initial gentle puffs with your bellows. You want to give just enough to provoke and enhance the flames, not so much that it blows it out.
Give that initial material a few moments to get fully alight and then loosely pack in more fuel. At this stage put in enough to nearly fill the smoker.
This may temporarily extinguish your flames, but just continue to give some short and sharp puffs with the bellows until this material begins to burn as well.
If done correctly, by this stage you should have quite a decent flame coming out of the top of your open smoker. Let this burn for about 10 to 20 seconds until it is nice and hot and all the material in the smoker has caught alight.
Gentle but deep puffs of the smoker at this point can help get it roaring nicely.
At first, a lot of new beekeepers under-cook this part and don’t let their smoker get going well enough. 15-20cm flames out the top of the open lid are ideal.
From there you’ll want to grab your hive tool (or whatever you have handy) and press down on the burning material. It should compress down to about halfway in the smoker.
Once it is compressed grab big handfuls of your fuel and pack it into the smoker. Again, the flames will be extinguished, but this is what you want. Once you have fairly densely packed the smoker to the top with more fuel, give some rapid and deep puffs of the bellows.
Puff as furiously as you can and you should start seeing big thick clouds of cool white smoke. Just before it looks like it is about the erupt into flames again, close the lid.
The smoke coming out should be comfortable to feel on your skin. You want to smoke the bees, not burn them!
Once the lid is closed, give a few more confirmatory puffs just for kicks and you’re good to go pester your bees.
Keeping it stoked
While you are working with your bees and have the smoker sitting idle, you should observe a steady stream of smoke coming from your smoker.
When you pick it up and pump the bellows it should take only a couple of puffs to have it pour out smoke like it did when you first lit it up.
If you find that is not the case then your first action should be to give a series of small short sharp pumps of the bellows, followed up by some long slow pumps. Repeating this SOS in morse code type pattern seems to work well to revive a near dormant smoker.
We are unaware of the science behind this, but find that if done in succession and repeated the smoker will eventually come back to life by doing this!
If your puffs are in vain, you’ll need to lift the lid and have a look. If you observe that there is still fuel in the smoker and it is mildly smouldering, then you can often just pack the fuel down a little, puff away on the bellows with the lid open and it will come back into action.
If however the smouldering does not intensify or has fizzled out to nothing, then you may need to unload the smoker and start again entirely.
Same goes for if upon opening the smoker you see that it is entirely out of fuel, simply start over again.
Depending on your fuel and how well lit the smoker is, it will be fine to leave alone for a few minutes (or even as long as 20 to 30 minutes for a particularly well-lit smoker) and it should get going again with just a few puffs.
For most hobbyists, a well-lit smoker will stay lit for an entire apiary session, lasting several hours before needing repacking.
Trial and error
You will find that there is a correlation between how densely you pack your smoker and how long it stays lit for.
If you under-pack it then the fuel can burn up too quickly. Conversely, if it is packed too densely then you may find you have more trouble keeping the smoker lit.
Funnily enough, a well-packed smoker with more fuel will actually be cooler to touch than a loosely packed smoker with less fuel.
Remember, you’re chasing a smoulder with a stream of smoke, not a ‘fire in a can’.
There is definitely some trial and error involved in finding what works best for your particular smoker and fuel. You’ll get there though, so just keep practising!
This is probably the most neglected part of using a smoker and potentially the most consequential.
Once you are done using the smoker you need to extinguish it properly and ensure it is stored properly for transit.
People have lost vehicles and lit bushfires before simply by the thoughtless carriage of smokers that have accidentally been knocked over and emptied their hot contents into cars or bushland.
What we recommend doing is placing a cork or a piece of timber (even a thick stick) into the spout of the smoker to make a snug fit and effectively suffocate the smoker for a few minutes. This won’t always put the smoker out entirely but it will render it fairly safe.
From there it can pay to open the smoker and dowse the entire contents of the smoker with water. Just pouring a litre or so on it should do the job.
You just want to ensure that it can’t spark up again and also that the can is cooled so that it can’t accidentally ignite anything in transit.
Once you are home and the contents have cooled down entirely, simply dispose of the ash and unburnt fuel in a bin, or even better, empty the ash onto your garden!
Being able to quickly and effectively light a smoker is a very handy skill for all beekeepers.
It can be frustrating and even embarrassing when you struggle to light a smoker – especially in public!
Hopefully, the above information helps you out.
As said, it is a bit of trial and error, but by following the above principles and committing some time to practice, we have no doubt you’ll be puffing away like a vaper in Fremantle.
Safety tips for using a bee smoker
- Practice at home in a safe area before going out into your apiary. It is much better to make a mistake somewhere safe than to do it somewhere consequential.
- Empty your smoker only after you get home. While you should dowse your smoker in the field, avoid emptying its contents there. You would hate to have driven off only to see smoke from a bushfire in your rear vision mirror. Empty it out at home where you can ensure the smoker’s contents won’t ignite a fire, even if they were to dry out and reheat themselves.
- Carry your smoker in a steel bucket. When we use our smoker during summer we will always carry our smoker in a steel 10-litre bucket one third filled with water. Using the hanging loop on the front of the smoker we hang the smoker over the inside of the bucket. By doing this we ensure that we are not putting the smoker down on potentially flammable materials (eg dry grass), we mitigate the risk of hot material falling from the smoker onto the ground, and we also afford ourselves a few litres of water handy to throw on fire if needed. The water in the bucket is also a good idea for washing your hands as you go if need be, and the water can be used to dowse the smoker at the end of your session.
- Carry a fire extinguisher. While a good one may cost a little bit to buy, they are priceless when you need them.
- Be alert. While working your hives your head is often buried in the hive and focused there, so your situational awareness is reduced. You have bees buzzing around, so your hearing is inhibited as well. You already have had a face full of smoke, so you’re not going to be as sensitive to additional smoke either. All of these factors may contribute to you not noticing a fire has started, thus limiting the chances you have of stopping it before spreads.
- Remember to pay attention to where your smoker is, and to keep an eye on what is happening around you.
- Check for local laws surrounding fire bans and harvest bans. There will be certain times of the year that using a bee smoker is prohibited. The fines can be heavy, as can the consequences of your mistakes.