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A bee smoker is a tool used by beekeepers to blow smoke into a beehive before inspecting, manipulating or handling the hive. The classic smoker, invented by Moses Quinby of St. Johnsville, New York in 1875, consists of a firepot, bellows, and a nozzle to direct smoke. The bellows force air through the fuel-filled firepot, while smoke exits through the nozzle. Smoke is then directed into the beehive to keep the bees from attacking the beekeeper.
Though the secret of smoking bees has been known for thousands of years, the scientific explanation for how it works is more recent. Under normal circumstances if a beehive is threatened, guard bees will release a volatile pheromone substance, iso-pentyl acetate, better known as an alarm odor. This alerts the middle-aged bees in the hive — the ones with the most venom — to defend the hive by attacking the intruder. When smoke is blown into the hive first, however, the guard bees' receptors are dulled and they fail to sound the pheromonious alarm. Conveniently, the smoke has a secondary effect in that it causes the other bees to instinctively gorge themselves on honey, which is a survival instinct in case they must vacate the hive and recreate it elsewhere. This gorging has a tendency to pacify the bees.
Even ancient Egyptians used smoke to harvest honey, but they held a shell or piece of pottery filled with a mound of smoldering cow dung, blowing the plume into the hive. Thousands of years later, not much had changed. Before Quinby's invention, beekeepers used a pan filled with burning material, which created a lot of unnecessary smoke, was troublesome, and presented a fire hazard. Quinby's bee smoker simplified smoking bees and helped to modernize beekeeping.
Although Quinby is regarded as one of the fathers of beekeeping in the United States because he was the first commercial beekeeper who made a living harvesting honey, another man made his own critical addition to modern beekeeping in 1852, 23 years before the smoker. His name was L.L. Langstroth, a Congregational minister from Pennsylvania, who invented removable frames.
Prior to removable frames, beehives and bees alike had to be destroyed to harvest honey. Blowing sulfur smoke into the hive killed the bees, then the hive was taken apart and crushed to extract the honey. After this, the beekeeper had to capture new colonies and create new beehives for the next harvest. Using removable frames, beekeepers could construct hives with panels standing on edge parallel to one another, inside a wood box. A panel could be removed by sliding it out with the honeycomb attached. The contents could be harvested, and the frame replaced for the bees to reuse. This made beekeeping commercially viable.
Though Quinby's humble bee smoker has been around for over a century, it is now seeing competition in the way of modern smokers constructed of heated propane coils that vaporize special "smoke fluid" made from food grade ingredients, less noxious to bees and beekeeper alike. By activating a thumb-trigger or lever, a small amount of fluid is pumped over the heated coil to produce a plume that is shot out a nozzle. This not only saves fuel but produces smoke only when needed.