Beekeeping 101 - Smoking Bees
Within and outside the dark hive, bees communicate extensively by smell. Nectar, pollen, diseases, other insects, brood, the queen, drones; everything in the hive has an odor que. As complicated as the bees odor communication system appears to be the manner that beekeepers have developed to overcome the bees ability to perceive odors, both inside and outside the hive is to puff cool, white smoke in and around the hive.
Smoking bees does three things. First it masks and prevents the spread of the alarm pheromone inside the hive. If some bees start emitting this pheromone the entire colony will become defensive, but smoke prevents this from happening. Next, by smoking the colony the bees are triggered into thinking there may be some fire danger and that they need to gorge themselves on honey because they may soon be without a home and have to start over again elsewhere. By gorging themselves they employ the third benefit of smoking. With all the honey that they have just eaten they can no longer bend their abdomen to sting you.
Early smokers were little more than a smoldering fire beneath or near a hive. Later tobacco pipes were modified to direct smoke into hives as were other early devices. After evolving through many different designs and styles, beekeepers in North America have a small, but adequate range of smoker designs from which to choose. The years of numerous smoker designs being commercially manufactured seems to have passed.
Smoker fuels are as numerous as are the beekeepers who use them. However, common fuels are: grass clippings, pine straw, sumac pods, cloth rags, rotted wood, wood shavings, and burlap. Essentially, anything can be used that produces cool, white billowing smoke and has not been treated with pesticides or with fire retardants.
Under normal conditions, smoke is effective for about 2-4 minutes before needing to be reapplied. Only use enough to turn the bees back into the colony and direct smoke into the hive. Attempting to smoke bees outside the colony is generally an ineffective way to get them to move where you want them.