This is a very common question that we get asked a lot, by both new beekeepers and those interested in beekeeping. Smoke has been used by beekeepers for hundreds of years, and this post seeks to explain why.
Bush fire in a can.
What the smoke does
Smoking your bees does two things.
Firstly, the smoke masks the pheromones that bees use to communicate with one another. One pheromone in particular is their ‘Alarm Pheromone’. When threatened, a honey bee will emit alarm pheromone. This can be when a bee is injured or when she feels her colony is under attack. When you squish a bee or get stung, this sets off a tiny alarm pheromone bomb. Any bees in the area that smell that pheromone will become more aggressive, and will emit their own alarm pheromone. Very quickly they can organize the whole colony against you.
Having a well lit smoker handy to mask the scent ensures that even if you piss off a bee or two, you won’t have an army of cranky bees coming after you.
Secondly, it simulates a bush fire, which triggers the bees to enact their fire drill. In contrast to most human fire drills, the safety protocol for bees is to head into the hive and consume as much honey as they can. It is believed they do this so that if they do have to evacuate, they have a full stomach of honey ready to go. Similarly to humans though, once they have consumed a full stomach of food the bees become lethargic and are less likely to bother stinging their intruders. In effect, the honey has a tranquillising effect on the bees and they are much easier to work with.
Do you always need to use the smoke?
No, you do not need to use smoke to work with bees. That said, it is better for the bees and the beekeeper if you do. Without using smoke many more bees lose their lives as they attempt to defend their hive. By limiting the bees defensive measures, less bees (if any at all) attack and therefore less will be killed.
There are alternative means of suppressing the bees defences by using other items such as liquid smoke and a light mix of sugar syrup in a spray. These methods can work, and can allow a beekeeper to work during fire ban periods. However, smoke is almost always the cheapest, easiest and most efficient way of suppressing bees.
What are the cons of using smoke?
The primary disadvantage to using smoke is that the bees lose productivity. It can take several hours for the bees to return to their usual work cycle after smoke has been used on their hive. This in itself is not a big deal, however if a beekeeper is using smoke on a hive regularly, say once a day every day of the week, then this will significantly reduce the efficiency of the colony. The use of too much smoke too often could also lead the bees to abscond from the hive. After all, that is the whole purpose of their fire drill, to prepare themselves to leave. This is not a common occurrence, however just keep in mind that smoke does stress the bees, so use sparingly. Less is sometimes more.