I once went to a barbeque where my friend was very proud of his new “smokeless” barbeque. The meat tasted insipid and might as well have been cooked in an oven. There are a few places where these systems can be useful. Smokeless beekeeping is a bit like this – don’t do it unless you have to. Let’s have a look at a few aspects of smoking bees without a smoker.
What Is A Bee Smoker?
A bee smoker makes a controlled slow-burning fire that emits smoke. This smoke can be puffed out of the smoker using a set of bellows. When the bees smell the smoke, they react by thinking they smell a fire. The first thing they do is to gorge on a bit of nectar. Let us engage in a philosophical exercise to understand how this works.
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Bees As Soldiers
Every worker bee in the hive is able to assist to defend the hive. She has a sting, and that sting is a one-shot weapon. If she stings she dies. In a beehive, honey is money – this is the energy currency of the bees. Defense of honey and preservation of hive wealth and capital (honey) is crucial to survival.
A Human Example
Let us imagine a human system to try and understand how bees work. We have two countries at war with each other. They want to take each other’s stuff. Both countries send their 18-year-olds to fight for their country.
The first country is very rich – before going to war, each 18 year old is given a million dollars and an explosive vest that they can use for one suicide mission. The second country is very poor, and the 18 years olds are given an explosive vest and told that if the enemy takes their country, their mother and sisters will be killed.
We will find that the soldiers who have money in their pocket will be far less likely to fight as “heroically” as the soldiers from the poor country. If you have nothing to lose other than your life, you are a more dangerous fighter. This is a lesson that many generals in rich countries can learn from bees.
How Do We Turn Bees Into Bad Fighters?
When we smoke the bees, they fill their honey stomachs with nectar. This means that a bee with a full stomach now has “money” – in her “wallet”. She perceives herself as being more valuable, and she will be less likely to waste the “money” by giving up her life for the hive. When we smoke the bees, we break the social defense contract the bees have by hacking into their “selfish” motives.
How Do Bees Get Angry?
When bees get angry, they release pheromones which communicate danger to other bees. The main component is isoamyl acetate which smells a bit like bananas. Smoke reduces the efficacy of this communication and also stops the bees even getting angry.
If you have not smoked the bees and one gets angry, other bees smell the pheromone, and they, in turn, become angry and release more pheromone. You get a rapid chain reaction from here and without intervention (smoke or similar) the bees will basically boil out of the hive and sting anything that moves.
Once a hive is angry, without you doing something to calm them, they will remain excitable for quite a long time.
How Long Does It Take For Bees To Calm Down?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Each beehive has a different personality. This is a product of genetics, hive size, queen age, worker age, nectar and pollen source, and many other factors. The take-home message is that when bees go crazy they are actually very dangerous.
There is a difference between bees being a bit angry – ie they buzz you a bit when you go near the hive – and bees going nuts. When a beehive loses its marbles, it can make hives next to it go crazy. This has a knock-on effect.
If you get an apiary riled up in the middle of a hot day by experimenting with smoking bees without a smoker you have created a big monster. These bees will take to the sky in their hundreds of thousands. Let us say each hive can field 30 000 bees to fly out and sting and you have 50 hives, that is 1.5 million stings that are now in the air.
The amount of liability and problems that are created by this sort of thing are difficult to comprehend. I have seen an apiary once go crazy and sting a stable of pedigree racing horses to death. When 1o racehorses valued at US90k each die, it can change the trajectory of your life if you get blamed.
Ok, so in a very gentle way, we have had a look at why smoking bees, as humans have done for tens of thousands of years, is a logical way of calming them. There is always some clever person out there inventing new things and new ways of doing things. Some of these inventions will stick, some will fail.
I am not against using alternatives to smoke – I have just not seen one yet that seems to work as well as a smoker. In this regard, I would always have the real smoker lit and ready if I were to try one of these experimental alternatives.
If something goes wrong, I can go back to what has worked for thousands of years and avoid getting myself killed, sued, or beaten to death by an angry farmer who just lost all their cows to my bees. Kickstarter videos and Instagram and Tik Tok posts of new technologies are great – test them safely.
Let us take a quick look at some things people try:
Not Using Smoke At All – Just Being Calm
This is great – be a very calm beekeeper. This will work fine, and if you are an experienced beekeeper and have good bees (calm) and the conditions are right, you can get away with this. However, there is a very good chance that things will get out of hand, and then you will be in trouble. I have worked with African bees in the Congo without smoke – these bees are evil mean nasty bees. I have also tried this another time and chickens 300 yards away were killed.
I have worked with European bees without smoke – the same thing as the Congo. Sometimes fine, sometimes not so good. When European bees go nuts they really really go nuts. Do not believe that European bees are peaceful calm bees – they just take a while to get angry. When they do I actually find them more terrifying than African bees because they are bigger and noisier.
Some beekeepers recommend spraying the bees with a sugar-water solution, or even a sugar-water solution with essential oils. I have tried this in the past, using a sugar-water solution. My personal observation is that it had a very little calming effect and triggered robbing.
The general logic used by a lot of proponents of “smokeless beekeeping” is that it reduces the fire hazard as you are not using a smoker during hot dry conditions. The last thing you want to be doing during a nectar dearth is spraying sugar on the bees at midday when they are the calmest. This will result in robbing and angry bees.
Liquid Smoke Sprays
Years ago a very enthusiastic German chap sent me a packet of sachets of liquid smoke and an explanation on how to mix this liquid smoke with water and spray it in the hive. The idea is it smelt like smoke (it was a water smoke extract – basically bong water). You sprayed this stuff on the hive. It worked ok, but the honey had a very smokey flavor – it tasted like smoked salmon.
A friend of mine is an avid vaper. He mixes his own cocktails of flavors and had some mix that he felt calmed the bees. He was quite enthusiastic about it for a while and swore it worked. A few months back we had a chat and his face was very badly stung. The topic of using vape smoke to calm bees has not come up again, but I do notice the smoker is back on the back of his pickup truck.
Ok, this is a topic I can ramble on for hours about! Before I bore you to death, let’s sign off. Bee safe. Bee sensible. If you are going to try smokeless beekeeping and alternatives to smokers, please do this carefully. Be aware of anything within 500 yards of the apiary that cannot getaway. If it is living and can die – have a plan. If you are the clever person who figures out an alternative to a bee smoker, message me and I will be your first customer! I am not against it, just not convinced of any alternatives – yet. If you liked this article please share.
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