a bee smoker with cool white smoke coming from the spoutBee smokers, even more than the iconic white clothing, are emblems of beekeeping — but they’re also a necessary tool for beekeeping safety and successful bee husbandry. To some beekeepers, they also represent a maddening challenge: to get them lit, and more importantly, to keep them lit can seem nearly impossible. Explore these tips for bee smoker use to learn how to light yours, keep it lit, and use it efficiently.

Why use smoke when working with bees?

Although the effect of smoke on bees is not entirely understood, there is no doubt that it makes working with them easier. Smoke appears to camouflage, or overwhelm, the bees’ alarm pheromones that they use to communicate information to each other about potential threats. This helps keep most of the colony calm, despite the intrusion into their nest. This calmness saves many bees’ lives and protects the colony from unnecessary harm.


In addition to interrupting the spread of alarm signals, smoke also prompts a significant fraction of the bees to start filling their crops with honey, perhaps in preparation for evacuating the hive, if needed. This activity preoccupies a large share of the population, reducing the number of bees that may react to beekeeping manipulations. After you complete your tasks, the honey is put back in the cells when things calm back down again.

The history of bee smokers

Early beekeepers probably got the idea of using smoke when they first used torches to drive bees away from wild hives to capture the honey. Over the years, many ways of smoking a colony have been tried, including large and elaborate pipe-style models that were held in the mouths of beekeepers while working bees.


Modern smokers are the descendants of the Bingham design, which was invented around 1880. This design promotes the production of cool, white smoke from a well-damped-down fire, while also allowing it to stay lit when not actively being puffed by the bellows. Modern smokers also have safety cages around them to allow handling without singeing your fingers.

Which bee smoker is best?

Every beekeeper needs a smoker. The best smokers have strong hinges and two separate air pathways through the bellows — one path to pull air into the bellows and a separate one to blow it into the fire chamber. A good quality smoker will also allow the replacement of the bellows if they become damaged. Design details such as canister volume, type of lid, and the relative stiffness of the bellows action are personal preferences. Never pass up a chance to handle various smoker models — you may find one you like even better than your own.

What's the best fuel for a bee smoker?

The best bee smoker fuel is truly a controversial point — every beekeeper has their own favorite! Anything that burns well, at a slow rate, and is non-toxic to the bees will work. The last point is important because even some natural materials may have been treated by chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides, and some plant fuels are toxic to bees. Some are even toxic to beekeepers if burned, such as poison ivy leaves and stems.


Materials such as pine needles, cones, and shavings (but not sawdust, which is too dense to burn well) are commonly used and considered quite safe. Some people use dried grasses or staghorn sumac bobs. Other beekeepers use tightly rolled “logs” of paper or cardboard, though these carry some unpredictable risks of chemicals from the inks or glues. Pellet-stove fuel, all-cotton cloth scraps, and coils of untreated sisal baling twine are safe and easy to use.


If you’re just starting out, stick with one kind of fuel at first: This makes it easier to learn to work the smoker. Once you can consistently get one fuel going, try other options to see if you like them better. Store your fuel in a dry place — a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a cover is a good choice. Damp fuel is maddeningly hard to get burning.

Safety tips for using a bee smoker

an unlit bee smoker on the ground next to a metal trash can

Lighting a fire in the field always carries some risk, particularly in dry seasons or locations. Explore these top safety tips for using your smoker, and always use caution.


  1. Have several gallons of water nearby, and consider keeping a fire broom at hand.
  2. Never dump out ashes from a smoker that has recently been in use without burying them or wetting them down.
  3. Consider having a small metal garbage can with a tight-fitting lid on-hand to dump ashes into and carry out of the yard when you’re done.
  4. Take care with your smoker and matches or igniter between uses, or while traveling from one bee yard to another — your small metal garbage can is an ideal place to store your smoker for safety.
  5. In times of extreme fire danger, consider alternative smoke-generating devices, or even just using water spritzing, instead.

How to light a bee smoker

First, if you have used the smoker before, remove the ashes and dispose of them safely, then make sure the space below the grate is empty. Give the meeting edges of the lid a quick scrape with your hive tool to remove any sticky build-up. Regular bee smoker maintenance can help take care of any thick creosote build-up inside the smoker.


If using loose fuel — such as dry pine shavings, cotton waste, or twine — fill the smoker full of fuel. If using a denser fuel such as wood-stove pellets, start the fire with some crumpled newspaper. Use a match, a fire starter, a butane barbeque lighter, or a propane torch to get a small fire going. Work the bellows to make sure it has caught and is burning well. 


Add some more fuel, puff the bellows a bit, and wait. When you see wisps of smoke, gently tamp the fuel down a bit and add some more. Use the bellows and wait for smoke — and repeat this process a few more times, adding fuel and tamping it down after it has caught.


When the smoker is full, tamp it down a bit more firmly and use the bellows to produce a flow of white, cool smoke from the fire. When a steady plume of smoke flows without using the bellows, it’s ready to use. We’ve demonstrated these steps for lighting a bee smoker in this video:


How to use your bee smoker

Think of smoke as a signal to your bees to get them headed in the direction you want them to take — both to physically move them from one place to another, and to metaphorically transition them from one demeanor state to a preferred one. It’s not instant: your bees need a few minutes to get the message and react, so plan ahead for this necessary time.

Quick tips for successful bee smoker use

What works best are gentle, but clear directions using the volume and direction of the smoke as the communications tool. You want billows of cool, visible, white smoke with soft-to-medium pressure. Anytime you find yourself puffing away hard, or see grey smoke or even sparks, stop immediately to fix your fire — at that point, you have a blow torch, not a smoker. Adding additional fuel will damp it down again.


  1. Before you open the hive: Let’s begin with the demeanor, or behavioral, aspect, which is how you start even before opening the hive. Give the entrance area a few gentle puffs of smoke — this is the equivalent of a quiet knock on their front door. Lift the lid, give a few more puffs of smoke under the cover, and close it back up again for a couple of minutes. Use this time to check that you have your hive tool ready, your veil zipped up, gloves on, etc. When you’re ready, the bees will be, too.


  1. Opening the hive: When you lift the lid again, you should have only a mild (or no) reaction from the bees because the smoke under the lid will have forestalled an all-bees-to-the-ramparts response caused by a sudden, unexpected intrusion. It may take a few tries to learn how much smoke and how long a pause is necessary to prepare your bees.

    While working, whenever the bees seem to be getting restive, pause and waft a few puffs across the work area as an interruption to their alarm cycle. If you find yourself having to smoke them over and over, that’s your cue to wrap things up for the day — their patience has worn thin.


  1. Moving bees with smoke: You can use the smoke to physically move, or herd the bees, directing them away from any area you want to clear: down into the hive, up into the box from the side, or off the edges of the hive to clear the space. This smoke use saves bees lives by getting them safely out of harm’s way.


  1. Using smoke on yourself: After a sting, even one that is in your protective clothing or gloves, the area is redolent with alarm and sting pheromones, attracting more hive-defenders to the very same spot. Smoking the area where you’ve been stung will help disguise the pheromones, which can prevent agitating your bees further.

Safely putting down your bee smoker

a bee smoker with a twist of grass inserted in the spout to conserve the fire

If you need to take a break but want to keep your smoker lit, conserve your fire by using a plug of twisted grass to fill the spout. Set the smoker away from the hives and anything flammable, on a fire-proof surface, and not in a building — inside a metal trash can placed on a bed of gravel or concrete pavers is a safe spot. Whenever you set down your smoker, ensure that it can’t tip over. When you’re ready to get back to work, check the fuel and give the smoker a few puffs, and you’re back in business.


When you’re finished using your bee smoker, there are two options for extinguishing it.

  • To conserve your smoker fuel to reuse next time you work your hives, firmly tamp down the remaining fuel to allow the fire to go out. Lift the lid of the smoker and leave it slightly loose to keep it from contracting tightly as it cools and place it in your metal garbage can. Firmly close the can’s lid so it won’t come open even if tipped over.
  • If you don’t have the necessary trash can, or choose not to reuse your smoker fuel, you can also empty the fuel out, submerge it in water to ensure it is fully extinguished, and store the smoker empty. Don’t accidentally discard the grate when dumping out the ashes!


Lighting and using a smoker is one of the most important lessons in beekeeping. Smoker use can help keep bees calm and, in turn, make tending your bee hives more enjoyable. For more beekepeing tips, explore our Beekeeper Guide.



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Read Zen and the Art of Getting Your Bee Smoker Lit