How to Use a Bee Smoker (even if you're afraid of fire)

This post contains affiliate links. You can read my disclosure here.

I've never told anyone this before: When I was a teenager my parents never worried about me smoking because I couldn't light a match to save my life.

Yep. Seriously.

And while these two things aren't really related, I'm pyrophobic: very afraid of fire. Well, ok, maybe the two are related. My phobia healthy respect has made me super cautious about fire safety. In spite of my awareness and care, we lost our barn and goats to a fire in 2012, which has made me even more conscious of fire safety. Let's face it, I'm a nervous wreck.

I'm always preaching fire safety,
so I hope you'll go read my post on preventing barn fires.
The post focuses on summer fires, but the tips are applicable to any time of year.
Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,
and there is no cure for a fire.

So when I got my bees, I was terrified of using a bee smoker (affiliate link). I'd read that some beekeepers spray their bees with sugar water to calm them down instead of smoking them, and I thought hurray, that will work for me!

And it did all through the spring and the first of summer. I mixed equal parts sugar and hot water and then poured the syrup into a new spray bottle. I'd squirt the bees lightly when I first opened the hive, and I'd spray each frame lightly when I pulled it out to look for eggs and larvae. It kept the bees busy while I did what I had to do.

In late summer the colony became a bit more aggravated when I'd open the hive, as they sought to protect their winter food stores from a marauder (me). Most, if not all, hives will be less friendly in the late summer and fall.

So one day when I was sitting in the waiting room while my husband underwent an out-patient procedure, I used the hospital's wi-fi (our home wi-fi is limited) to watch some beekeeping videos on my Kindle. I came across the Fat Bee Man's YouTube video on how to light a smoker and thought, ok, I can do this (as long as I can light a match and keep it lit, that is).

His first suggestion was to practice lighting and using the smoker before you ever take it out to the bee yard. So I did. Hubby had added a package of smoker fuel (affiliate link) to our shopping cart when we bought the beehive and other equipment, so I had that ready, as well as some newspaper and a box of matches. I knew it would take several matches to get the burlap to light, because I'm still not very good at lighting matches.

So on a windless day I followed the Fat Bee Man's instructions. I first lit a piece of wadded up newspaper and stuffed it in the smoker. Well, I stuffed it in there first and then tried to light it; I'm still worried about fire. After a few matches lit and burned out, one finally caught the newspaper and stayed lit. I added some smoker fuel... and smothered the flame.

I tried again with another sheet of newspaper and after a few more matches, it stayed lit. I squeezed the bellows as I added the burlap and hurray! The burlap caught fire too. I topped it with another piece of wadded newspaper, which the Fat Bee Man says will prevent sparks from jumping out the tip when you smoke the hive. Success!

Are you wondering what you'll need for your new beehive?
Find out what you need and what you might not in
Basic Equipment for New Beekeepers.

Commercial smoker fuel (affiliate link) is simply strips of burlap; you can also buy smoker pellets (affiliate link). Nowadays I usually use wood shavings instead of burlap, the same wood shavings that I use in the chick brooder and nest boxes. The burlap smoker fuel is definitely easiest to light though.

I light a piece of newspaper or junk mail in the smoker - which still takes several matches - then as I squeeze the bellows I add several handfuls of shavings and top it off with another wad of newspaper. I save flyers and ads we get in the mail for this purpose since we don't subscribe to the local paper.

This fire will last me about 15 minutes. I'm a slow bee inspector; I take it nice and easy and I've run out of smoke several times. I know now to take more fuel with me to the bee yard (a fancy name for the field where my one hive resides) and add more shavings before the fire goes out completely.

I always top off the smoker with a wad of paper to keep sparks inside; that was a great tip. I've seen photos of burned spots in the beeswax, caused by sparks that shoot out when someone is too aggressive with the bellows. Holding the smoker as upright as possible when using it helps prevent this too, although you do have to point it toward the bees to use it effectively.

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I'm pretty good at lighting the smoker now and am more confident when I work the bees. In the late summer bees tend to be more aggressive due to the heat, less forage, and their need to defend their winter food supply (the honey they've stored). While my colony has been pretty laid-back, I've had a few bees that were persistent about warning me off and I'm thankful that I know how to use the smoker (and thankful for my bee jacket too). You can even smoke yourself to confuse the bees and help prevent stings.

What do you do with the smoker when you're finished inspecting your hives? At my beginning beekeeping class, the instructor told us to stuff the smoker's spout with a twist of green grass or leaves, or even a cork that fits snugly. The lack of oxygen will put out the fire inside. Then I hang my smoker on the rim of our metal burn barrel until I do the evening chores. I make sure the smoker is stone cold when I put it away. Not taking any chances, you know.

I can usually get the smoker going with no more than three matches now. Maybe it won't take you as many.

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