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What is a Bee Smoker?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon313523 — On Jan 12, 2013

Why is it that when I look up "the father of American beekeeping", that Lorenzo Langstroth is given that title? Moses Quinby is given the title of "the father of commercial beekeeping in America" in the articles I have researched. Who is correct?

By pastanaga — On Dec 01, 2012
It's amazing how sometimes people come along who can revolutionize an industry with only their own innovations. When I was living in Mali I came across a man who had basically set himself up as the person to come see for bird eggs of any kind. Chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and so forth, he had them all and had constructed his own incubators from scratch. It was really amazing that someone without a degree, without anyone to help him, had managed to put together machines from his own observations of what the eggs needed.

And the man who invented the honey bee smoker did basically the same thing, except he did it with the potential to get stung during his experiments!

By Mor — On Nov 30, 2012
@ingodnito - If you have a known hive nearby, you can get it moved by a professional. The first step is making sure they are actually bees. Find pictures online and see if you can identify them (or get someone else to do it). Are they honey bees, bumble bees, wasps or hornets?

Depending on what they are, you can try to limit the kind of food they are looking for. Honey bees aren't going to be interested in very short grass with no flowers, for example, so cutting your lawn would help. Wasps, however, might be wanting to eat insects or something else, so that might not help.

Don't try to kill them if they are honey bees... honey bees are already dying out in droves in the wild and they are much needed by the agricultural industry (as well as nature in general). Get a smart pest control person to figure out what they are and how best to deal with them. Good luck.

By Ana1234 — On Nov 29, 2012
anon35148 - Well, it would still stop them from sending that hormonal signal that would make them want to attack someone. Swarming bees are usually just looking for a new place to live, they aren't looking to attack unless someone gets too close and they feel threatened (which is where the hormone kicks in.

If they aren't receiving that hormone, they won't be scared or angered by the person who is throwing a net over them in order to get them out of there. I'm just speculating though, as I'm not a bee keeper.

By anon35148 — On Jul 02, 2009

That does make sense for bees that are located in a hive, but what about bees that are just swarming and do not have a hive; what does the smoke do to them then? (Ex. Bees are moving and decide to relocate at a baseball stadium. A beekeeper is called in to get rid of them and uses smoke. In that situation, what does the smoke do to the bees when there is no hive?)

By ingodnito — On Aug 17, 2007

I am highly allergic to bees, and they are all over my grass. Is there a way to make them go away?

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