July 14

Are Honey Bee Smokers Actually Useful?

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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:

Honey Bee Smoker Components

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?

More...

Addressing the Controversy

There’s a saying in beekeeping that states: 

quotation mark afs | Bear Country Bees

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.

Disclaimer

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.

Recap: Theory #1

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.

Fun Fact

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.

Win/Win

Recap: Theory #2

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...

Mythbusters Animated GIF

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…

…HOWEVER…

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…

Myth Busted Animated GIF

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

Honey Bee Smoker Usefulness - Beekeeping Inspection

Alarm Pheromone Perception In Honey Bees Is Decreased By Smoke

Conducted By: Univerity of Illinois

Honey Bee Smoker Usefulness - Bee Colony

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…

…HOWEVER…

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…

…HOWEVER…

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:

Honey Bee Smoker Usefulness - Busy Bees

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:

Honey Bee Smokers Usefulness - Technical Jargon

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:

Plain English

Technical Jargon Made Easy

  • Using smokers to inspect beehives is a universally accepted practice among beekeepers, though no one truly understands the efficacy of this practice
  • The purpose of this study is to test the defensive response of honey bees when smoke is present
  • In order to test this response, researches had to simulate the effects of the Electroantennograph (EAG) Response which translates electrical signals received from the antennae into muscular reflexes. The only viable way to conduct this test is to use brief electrical currents on live honey bees at varying levels
  • As the electrical currents were being applied, researchers observed the 4 distinct stages of the sting extension reflex
  • 2 different types of smoke (burlap & hops pellets) were used to test the reflex stages mentioned above
  • Researches found that smoke did not have any influence on the likelihood of a stinger being extended. In other words, smoke did not decrease the chances of honey bees extending their stingers
  • Instead, researchers found that higher levels of electricity (simulating higher levels of alarm pheromones being received via the EAG response), led to a higher likelihood of a droplet of venom being released onto the bee’s stinger
  • The venom droplet was much less likely to be released onto the stinger when smoke was applied
Conclusion

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…

Mythbusters Plausible Animated GIF

…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:

Cons Of Using A Smoker
  • It costs extra money to purchase a smoker as opposed to going without one (i.e. unnecessary expense IOHO)
  • Most fuels for bee smokers are marketed as a “critical” item to have but are vastly overpriced and don’t last nearly as long as they should for the price you pay
  • You can use natural fuels (e.g. pine needles from the ground, etc.) if you want to avoid the cost mentioned above. However, there’s no guarantee that you’ll always have the supply you need forcing you (at times) to go buy the fuel you were avoiding in the first place
  • It takes an inordinate amount of time and effort to keep the smoker lit during your inspection (notwithstanding the YouTube tutorials claiming/showing otherwise). You’ll most likely spend more time keeping the smoker lit than you will just doing to the inspection start to finish.
  • You run the risk of igniting an unintentional fire when using a bee smoker (especially in dry areas)
  • Smokers get quite hot and you run the risk of getting burned by the heat on the outside of the canister
  • Many smoker models do not work very well for very long
  • Side Note: we are connected with more commercial beekeepers each year and we have never heard from them that they use bee smokers for any of their inspections.

    With hundreds or even thousands of hives, they should have far more reason to use a smoker than backyard beekeepers…

    …but they don’t. To them, it’s more time and hassle than it is worth.
  • To them, it’s more time and hassle than it is worth.
Conclusion

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.

7-Inch Stainless Honey Bee Steel Smoker

Product: 7" Stainless Steel Bee Smoker

Purchase Today

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!

Bryce

About the author

Bryce MacCabe

Bryce is the CEO/CMO of Bear Country Bees and is in charge of marketing, strategy, and innovation. When he isn't obsessing over creating the best possible experience for backyard beekeepers, he loves reading Star Wars, visiting new places, studying and launching rockets, and spending time with his family.He also sells weather and astronomy equipment and loves observing clouds, lightning, and storms.

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  • I’ve done both, used a smoker and opened the hive without it. I have noticed that when I puff the bees with smoke, the sound they make elevates very quickly as if they are trying to “fan it away” so I don’t really like it. I wonder if it just makes it so they cannot breathe very well, after all… I have the same problem.
    Also, it is a PAIN to get the smoker found, filled, and keep lit to provide the smoke you need and in my opinion, I’m much faster just getting into the hive, do what needs doing and get out so the bees aren’t agitated as long. Once I’m out of the hive, they calm down fairly quickly.
    I should say, tho that I’m an inexperienced bee keeper, I’ve only been doing this for about 4 years on and off between me and my husband.

    • Very well said Mariam!

      Definitely agree with everything you’ve outlined here. Our experience has mirrored yours very closely so can’t say that I’m terribly surprised 🙂

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