Cave and rock wall paintings from around the world depict our ancestors working with honey bees for thousands of years. The pictures show these earliest honey robbers using smoke as they approach bees in cavities along rock cliffs. While cliff climbers burned smoking torches to control the bees, modern beekeepers use the smoker invented in the mid-1800s. Our smoker is a metal firebox with a bellows similar to that used in blacksmith shops at the time of its development. Beekeepers build a smoldering fire inside the firebox to produce a cool smoke to calm the bees. An explanation of how the smoke works is often told like this: Honey bees, living in cavities in hollow trees, smell the smoke and sense the forest is on fire. Anticipating the need to flee their home, the bees gorge themselves with honey to be able to take it with them. The bees, bloated with honey, don’t have much fight left in them. It’s an imaginative story, but it probably does not happen. Worker bees do drink up stored honey when beekeepers smoke the hive, but the more likely hive-calming effect probably comes from blocking the bees’ pheromone communications within the hive. A little smoke masks alarm pheromone distributed by guard bees and calms the hive. Too much smoke excites the colony. Beekeepers can tell if they are applying smoke appropriately by watching the bees and listening to the hum of the hive. Applying too much smoke brings an immediate buzz from the bees.
Beekeeper Crystal Anderson builds a smoky fire of pine needles in her smoker prior to working her Tennessee bees. She lights a fire in the bottom of the smoker, then smothers the flame by adding pine needles to produce a heavy smoke from the smoldering fire. Slowly packing in large amounts of fuel, her smoker will stay lit for a long time. Learning how much smoke to apply is a lesson often taught by the bees themselves.