People with no background in beekeeping may scratch their heads and wonder why beekeepers use smoke to calm bees. Even those with no beekeeping experience at all are probably familiar with the image of a beekeeper blowing smoke out of a handheld device, or a smoker, over their hives.
But the answer as to why they do that is a little complicated. For one thing, in opposition to commonly held beliefs, a bee smoker does not strictly calm the bees down.
A common misconception is that beekeeper smoke actually calms the hive. That is only half-correct. In truth, the smoke does not so much calm the bees as it makes it more difficult for them to become agitated.
When bees detect a threat, they release a pheromone into the air called isopentyl acetate. The pheromone tells other bees nearby that they are under attack. This is why bees can swarm so suddenly. By dousing bees with a smoker, a beekeeper overwhelms their ability to smell. They cannot pick up on the isopentyl acetate, so they do not feel compelled to swarm and attack the beekeeper.
Another reason why beekeepers use smoke to calm bees is it compels the critters to overeat. When bees smell the smoke, they become convinced their hive is on fire. They think they must get away as fast as possible. Bees will consume lots of honey to build up the energy for a long journey away from their home. By engorging themselves with honey, their abdomens get so full that it is difficult for them to sting. So, by dousing the hive, a beekeeper makes it harder for bees to swarm and sting.
How To Smoke Bees
When you use a smoker, you want to overwhelm the bees’ senses with a layer of smoke, but you do not want to burn them. Before you apply the smoke, test it on your arm. You want it to be relatively cool. You also want to fuel it with natural sources like pine needles, twigs, or wood pellets. Unnatural sources, like paper, that have gone through a chemical process, may irritate the bees.
Make sure you emit a bit of smoke near the entrance before you open it up. This is how you let the bees know you are coming. Smoke sparingly unless the colony becomes aggressive. If you get stung, smoke in the direction where the bee came from because there are almost certainly more to follow.