One of the most common tools that beekeepers use is a smoker (often called a bee smoker).
If you haven't seen a smoker before, this is what common models look like:
The idea behind the smoker is that using it should help calm the honey bees down allowing the beekeeper to more easily perform inspections, capture swarms, etc. and (hopefully) not get stung as often.
A quick online search will give you online articles, social media posts, and videos by the dozens that make statements to support this idea.
In fact, bee smokers are viewed as such an essential piece of equipment that they are included by default with most Starter Kits.
But are bee smokers actually that effective? Does using a smoker actually help calm bees? Or is it yet another beekeeping myth that has been passed around?
Addressing the Controversy
There’s a saying in beekeeping that states:
A Wise Old Beekeeper In a galaxy far, far away
If you ask four different beekeepers the same question, you’ll get five different answers
As ridiculous as that statement may sound, it’s far more accurate than you might think.
If you’ve been researching or trying to learn more about beekeeping, you’ve probably found that almost everyone has a different opinion and treats it as the gospel truth.
Smokers are one of those controversial topics that people have diverse opinions on and we understand that our view on this topic may raise a few hairs.
Nonetheless, it’s important that you understand whether or not smokers are a good option for you. With that, we’re going to dive into this topic knowing that it’s possible that we’ll have differing views.
We’d love to know where you stand on whether or not smokers are useful for you. At the end of the article, leave us a comment to let us know your thoughts.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the meat of the discussion.
The Two Predominate Theories About WHY Smokers Help Calm Honey Bees
Discussion of placebo effect aside, a common consensus among many (but not all) beekeepers is that using a bee smoker helps honey bees be more calm during inspections, etc.
What no one really understands is WHY it helps.
Focusing on the most plausible explanations, we find two main theories about smokers emerge:
Mainstream Theory #1: Smoke Drives Honey Bees To Overeat
In a nutshell, this theory upholds the idea that honey bees have a primal instinct that drives them to gorge themselves on honey when they sense/smell smoke.
The smoke is (assumed to be) an indicator to the bees that their home is on fire and that they need to eat as much food as possible before bailing to find a new place to live. The bees then proceed to help themselves to a feast of honey.
Unfortunately, with far too much food in their stomachs, the bees reportedly become lethargic just as a human would after overeating at a buffet.
This sluggishness allows the beekeeper to inspect the hive more safely than if they were dealing with hangry guard bees.
Smoke Drives Honey Bees To Overeat
This theory entertains the idea that smoke causes honey bees to engorge themselves on honey before leaving the hive.
According to the theory, the bees do this because they think their home is burning down so they need to cram as much food as possible before leaving the "doomed" hive.
Then, they become lethargic just as a human would after overeating at a buffet. Sluggish bees = easier inspections for beekeepers.
Mainstream Theory #2: Smoke Calms Attack Pheromones
It has been proven that honey bees emit an alarm pheromone (a combination of isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone) when they perceive danger.
Once a stinger is injected and the venom sac is torn from the bees’ body, a much larger amount of alarm pheromone is blasted out into the nearby area, alerting the rest of the bees to attack.
This is why massive amounts of honey bees can (and often do) attack out of nowhere the instant one of their cohorts stings an intruder.
Multiple beekeepers have reported that the emission of the alarm pheromone smells very similar to bananas.
If you start smelling bananas when inspecting your beehive, get ready to be dealing with some ANGRY bees 🙂
With this alarm pheromone at play, how is a beekeeper to succeed?
Enter the bee smoker…or so the theory goes.
This theory uses a more scientific approach to explore the possibility of using smoke masking the attack pheromones so as to not raise the alarm to other bees in the hive.
With the smoke masking this pheromone, the beekeeper can (theoretically) inspect the hive with much less disturbance.
The bees don’t attack nearly as much (i.e. fewer bees die) and the beekeeper doesn’t get stung nearly as much.
Smoke Calms/Masks The Attack Pheromone
Honey bees emit an alarm pheromone in a variety of situations, including when their hive is under attack.
According to this theory, applying smoke is a way to interfere with the alarm pheromone the guard bees would normally put off.
If the guard bees can't sound the alarm to their teammates, beekeepers can inspect the hive with far fewer chances to get stung.
Have These Theories Been Proven?
I think now is an appropriate time to resurrect the legendary...
Excellent! Now that Adam and Jamie are with us, let's look at these two theories through the lens of scientific fact.
Mainstream Theory #1
In digging through the archives of the Internet, there is some evidence to suggest that honey bees might have tendencies toward eating more when smoke is present.
A study published in the Journal of Apicultural Research indicated that that honey bee sacs were heavier after smoke was introduced than before (study summary).
Another study from the same publication discusses engorging behaviors being highest during times of distress including when bees perceive that their home is about to be destroyed (study summary).
Now, that might seem like a done deal in proving that this theory is certifiable fact…
It’s important to keep in mind that both of these studies were done in 1968. Neither research techniques nor beekeeping were understood back then as they are now.
Additionally, these are the only two studies that we’re aware of that appear to actively promote the notion of smoke causing engorging behavior. Recent scientific studies on honey bees are nearly silent on making this claim.
Without the backing of additional and more recent studies, we are skeptical that this claim holds up to the amount of discussion it generates.
With the legendary Myth Busters at our back, we dub this beekeeping myth…
Mainstream Theory #2
Unlike Theory #1, there seems to be a LOT more research done on the idea of smoke masking alarm pheromones.
We’re going to dive into some pretty scientific stuff here, so hang on.
Here are a few studies done on this subject by notable entities:
Smoke v.s. Alarm Pheromone Research
Alarm Pheromone Perception In Honey Bees Is Decreased By Smoke
Conducted By: Univerity of Illinois
Honey Bee Inhibitory Signaling Is Tuned To Threat Severity & Can Act As A Colony Alarm Signal
Conducted By: Univerity of California
From these and previous studies, it is clear that honey bees do emit an alarm pheromone through a combination of isopentyl acetate and 2-heptanone.
The study by the University of Illinois in particular showed that applying smoke to the honey bee antennae reduced the electroantennograph (EAG) response — a technique that measures the output of insect brain when exposed to different odors.
In other words, the smoke did reduce how much the antennae responded to the alarm pheromone.
Note: this effect has been shown to be reversible. Multiple studies have shown that the antennae return to normal activity levels within 10-20 minutes of the initial smoke application.
Rest assured, no bees have ever been harmed with the application of smoke to a beehive.
At this point, it would be easy to say that this theory is certifiable fact…
The same study by the University of Illinois also proved that the exact same type of reduction in the electroantennograph response showed up when the antennae are exposed to phenylacetaldehyde — a floral odor.
Rather than claiming that smoke is the silver bullet that turns off or masks the alarm pheromone, the study suggests that it’s more likely that smoke interferes with the overall olfactory senses.
It would be all too easy to say that this theory is correct based on this evidence…
There’s one study we haven’t covered yet that truly shines above the rest when attempting to shed light on this topic.
The Most In-Depth Study On The Honey Bee Response To Smoke
We’ve already looked at some very trustworthy sources on this topic.
However, no study was completed with such rigor and thoroughness as this one published by the Journal of Insect Science in 2018:
Smoke Conditions Affect the Release of the Venom Droplet Accompanying Sting Extension in Honey Bees
Conducted By: Journal of Insect Science
This study is INTENSE.
Unlike the other studies we’ve discussed, this study spans a full 26 pages of dry, highly-complicated, hard-to-understand technical jargon.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
To avoid getting lost in all of that technical jargon, we’ve boiled the important points down to plain English that is much easier to make sense of:
Technical Jargon Made Easy
The group of researchers undertaking this study were very clear that they speculate that the venom droplet amplifies the alarm pheromone in individual bees. It is assumed that smoke’s effect on reducing the formation of the venom droplet might indicate that less alarm pheromone is released.
This conclusion is very important.
The most in-depth research available today can’t provide absolute proof that smoke does actually interfere with the alarm pheromone.
Even though there is a lot of compelling evidence to affirm this, the researchers were very clear that they best they could do is speculate and assume that smoke has this effect.
After tallying the results, we deem this beekeeping myth…
…but definitely not CONFIRMED.
Without more hard science to back up the claim, we’re not willing to put our full support behind the notion that smoke actually masks the alarm pheromone.
At the same time, we realize that this group of researchers may be onto something. There might be a real case to be made here as further studies and tests are done.
The Million $$$ Question: Is A Bee Smoker Worth Using Or Not?
At this point, all we’ve been able to do with science is come to a standstill on whether smoke has the desired effect on bees.
That still leaves us with a problem: what about practical use for backyard beekeepers?
Will a bee smoker actually help you have an easier time with your inspections?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy, clear-cut answer.
No Easy Clear-Cut Answer To The Million $$$ Question
When science falls short, it can be helpful to see what other people's experiences have been.
Many beekeepers swear by the graves of their ancestors that using a bee smoker makes their bees less aggressive during inspections.
Other beekeepers have reported that using one doesn’t have much of an impact and is much more of a hassle than it’s worth.
Again, these polar opposites are not very helpful in coming to a decision on whether or not you should use a smoker.
At this point, the best thing we can do is provide our insight and experience with smokers over the past 17 years (as of this writing).
Our View On Using Bee Smokers
At Bear Country Bees, our experience has been that smokers are a lot of hassle and don’t deliver a large enough benefit for us to justify using.
Admittedly, part of this stems from our family views on injuries. Allow me to explain.
Smoker Use: If You Want To Get The Job Done
In our family, most of us don’t shy away from potential injury of any sort including bee stings. In fact, (naturally occurring) injuries are bragging rights for us.
We even have a running family joke/one-upping contest for largest number of stitches in a one incident (the record is still held by Bret, our COO and master beekeeper).
What we really care about is getting in and getting the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It's no big deal if we get a few cuts, bruises, or bee stings (as it were) along the way.
We’ve found that inspecting beehives with a bee smoker takes a lot more time and effort than completing the inspection without one. This goes against what matters to us so we choose not to use one.
We've also found the following drawbacks to smokers that (almost) no one will tell you about:
If you would rather get in and take care of business quickly without having to worry about these drawbacks and don’t care too much about injuries, you likely won’t find a lot of use in a smoker.
You’ll save time, money, and headache by ripping off the Band-Aid (so to speak) and just getting the job done.
Smoker Use: If You Want To Avoid Injury At All Cost
If, however, you are more like my wife who will avoid getting injured or sick at all costs, you can certainly consider using a smoker as it might reduce the chances of getting stung.
You might be more risk averse than we are and that’s ok.
If you are genuinely concerned about the prospect of getting stung, first make sure that you figure out whether beekeeping is the right hobby for you.
Assuming you still want to go through with it, but are still apprehensive about getting stung, considering a smoker might be a good option that will give you peace of mind.
If You Want To Take Care Of Business
You probably won't find a lot of use for a smoker. You'll likely find that it's easier to just get in and get your inspection done rather than worrying about using your smoker.
If You Are Highly Risk Averse
A smoker might be a good option for you to consider. It might calm your bees to a point where you can feel more confident about performing your inspections.
While we don’t personally use a bee smoker, the large majority of our backyard beekeepers each year report to us that they really appreciate having their smokers when doing inspections even if it isn’t a mission critical piece of equipment for them.
Again, there’s really no right or wrong answer here. It’s whatever you’re most comfortable with.
Our Final Recommendation
If you are still unsure at this point whether or not you should use a bee smoker, we recommend that you buy one and try it out.
You’ll only spend $20 - $60 on a reasonable model. There’s really no extra benefit to spending any more than that.
Even if you end up not liking it, it’s a small investment that will inform and help shape all of your future seasons of beekeeping. At least you’ll know one way or the other.
At the end of the day, the final decision on whether or not to use a smoker is up to you. You’ll have to decide which side of the line you fall on and what makes the most sense for you.
What Do You Think?
As we mentioned in the beginning of the post, using a bee smoker is a topic that can be fairly controversial in the world of beekeeping. Putting aside the polarizing discussions, we want to know whether using a smoker works for you or not.
What do you think? Do you use a smoker? If so, what do you find most helpful about it? If not, what keeps you from using one? What would make you consider using (or stop using) a bee smoker during your inspections?
Please leave your thoughts in the comments below. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say!