When people first find out that I’m a beekeeper, I often receive the same question. “How do you keep from getting stung all the time?” This curiosity is valid, as you would expect opening a hive of 60,000 + bees to be tremendously dangerous. Couple that with the fact that 1 out of every 3 people is afraid of stinging insects! However, it’s actually relatively rare to be stung while inspecting and caring for a hive. In my four years of beekeeping, I’ve only been stung twice!
In part, this low sting rate is due to the fact that beekeepers have a very special friend on hand at all times, the bee smoker. A bee smoker, put simply, is a metal contraption used for puffing smoke into a hive. You see, bees have a really special ability to release certain pheromones into the air to alert other bees of danger. These pheromones act as an alarm response system and tell all the other honey bees to be ready to attack anything that appears harmful to the hive. The release of specific pheromones creates an instant "code red" condition across the entire hive. When smoke is released into the air around the honey bees in the hive, these pheromones can no longer be detected as the smoke interferes with the honey bees signal reception system.
In addition to confusing the honey bees signal reception, when a hive is smoked, the honeybees assume there must be a fire in close proximity, so they begin to stuff their mouths with honey. I imagine it being something like if you started to smell large amounts of smoke in your own home – you would immediately grab as many valuables as you could. Aside from the queen, honey is the second most valuable component to a beehive, so the bees gorge on as much as they can. After eating so much honey, the bees are calm and weighted down, making it less probable that they will make the effort to sting.
The tradition of bee smoking is long standing; even ancient Egyptians used smoke to harvest their honey. They would use ceramic pots and pans and burned cow dung to create a plume of smoke. Since ancient Egyptian times, the concept of the bee smoker has hardly changed at all. Moses Quinby, the first commercial beekeeper in the United States, is credited with designing the classic single-handed smoker in 1875. Since then there have been many variations of smokers, but they all are quite similar to Quinby's classic design.
One time while inspecting my hive, I decided to see what it would be like to care for my honeybees without using any smoke. I wanted to see what they were like naturally, without the sedation that the addition of the smoke brings. This was quite possibly the worst decision I have made thus far in my beekeeping experience. As soon as I opened my hive thousands of bees were flying around my head, clearly resenting my presence. I could hardly see through the cloud of bees that flew around me! Needless to say, I will never go without my trusted friend the smoker again.
When I talk with people interested in beginning the practice of beekeeping, I always explain to them the ways honeybees communicate and I always recommend using a bee smoker. Don't open your hive without one! If you are a beekeeper, or perhaps just starting out this year, we would love to hear stories about your experiences with your beehive.
Submitted By: Rayne Macphee