Lighting the smoker and keeping it lit seems to be a major problem to many beekeepers. This is something I have never been able to understand, because it has nothing to do with learning beekeeping, it has more to do with school science lessons and common sense. How many beekeepers do you see who fill the firebox up with fuel, then try to light the top, or lay the smoker down on its side when working bees? You would think the penny would drop after a time, but I often see quite “experienced” beekeepers struggle with lighting their smokers and keeping them lit.
The few hints and tips I give below are intended for the bent nosed smoker, not the old fashioned straight nosed smoker that needs a different technique.
I know there are some who don’t use smoke and advise others not to either. I don’t want to get into too much discussion here about that and as always, I suggest you please yourself. What I will say though, is that in my opinion any bees that are worth anything will defend themselves, so expect them to become defensive. For that reason I advise lighting a smoker and keeping it by you in case you need it.
Maintenance of smoker.
A smoker along with a hive tool are important beekeeping tools. Make sure you have a good quality well made smoker, not a cheap poorly made one that will fall to bits. Keep it in good condition by making sure the bellows don’t leak. If the fabric splits it can often be mended with sticky tape. If it is badly damaged it might be worth buying new bellows.
There are different ways of getting air from the bellows to the fire box. If it is a tube, then make sure it lines up with the hole in the bellows. If there is no tube, then make sure the hole in the fire box lines up with the hole in the bellows. Make sure that holes and tubes aren’t blocked up.
If there is a thick build up of carbon and tar inside the nozzle or around the lid, scrape it off with a blunt knife, old screwdriver or hive tool. This needs doing “as and when”. Dave Cushman suggested proprietary oven cleaner to remove the rest of the deposit, but I have never seen this done and never had the need to use it.
As with a lot of things in beekeeping I tend to make preparations, so I make things easy for myself and avoid possible problems. I collect fuel when I see it and put it in an animal food bag. This is a mixture of hay, dried grass, touchwood, fir cones, leaves, etc, etc. It is permanently in my car, so I have it if needed. I always take it to the bees, but I’m in a rural area, so unless it has been raining there is always fuel available. Keep matches or other method of lighting with you, but in emergency I have used a magnifying glass on a sunny day!
I never empty my smoker out when I finish. The part burnt fuel is good for starting the smoker next time.
Lighting the smoker – my method.
Empty the smoker out onto the ground. Sort out any partly burnt fuel from last time. Crumple up some paper, light it and drop it in the fire box, pumping the bellows until it is well alight. The choice of paper is important as some, such as magazines now seem to be printed on fire retardant paper that doesn’t burn well. Add fuel that burns easily such as hay or dried grass, then add the partly burnt fuel. Keep pumping until well alight. This is important as you need to create a good “fire base”, otherwise it may soon go out. Add more fuel as necessary.
You need to keep the smoker upright, otherwise if you lay it down it will soon go out. When working the bees I keep it between my knees, gripping it by the bellows. If you put it on the ground, make sure it is upright. By adding fuel when needed I have worked bees all day without it going out.
I have seen fire lighters used, but I think that must be a desperation measure! I regularly see people fill the smoker up, then give it a blast with a butane gas torch, but I have never had to resort to this.
When you have finished.
Laying the smoker on it’s side is usually enough for it to quickly go out, but on a breezy day it might stay alight. Plugging the nozzle with grass or similar as well will ensure it will quickly go out. It should be ready for trouble free lighting next time.