Italian Week – The Secret Of Lighting A Bee Hive Smoker

The secret of lighting a bee hive smoker is burlap. Who knew?

When I first started beekeeping, I learned that you lit a smoker using a layer of newspaper, some twigs and some fuel such as baling twine or dry leaves.

First you light the newspaper, then add the twigs. After the twigs are on fire, you add the fuel, which catches on fire and makes the smoke.

Sounds easy, right? It wasn’t for me. I could never keep my smoker going for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Then I found a post written by Karen Edmundson Bean of the Brookfield Farm Bees & Honey Blog.  She had the same problem. I wasn’t alone!

Karen learned from a fellow beekeeper that the secret to keeping a smoker lit is using burlap. That’s pretty much it!  No newspaper, no twigs. Just burlap.  For the details, see Karen’s post, which I reblogged here yesterday.

Commenters agreed with this advice:

MikeRoberts says:

I do a similar thing, but I just light the burlap directly (I get it from the local coffee roasters), get it going well, then stuff it down in there, give it a few more puffs, then add a handful of freshly pulled green grass on top. I’m told this makes the smoke cooler. Hasn’t failed on me yet ..

willowbatel says:

I use burlap in my smoker, because it’s cheap and easy, and stays lit for a long time. The key to getting it started is lighting it outside of the smoker and letting it burn for a little bit until there’s a large flame. I usually fold the burlap up loosely, and leave a little thin corner out to start the flame on. Once that corner is lit, turn the burlap so the flame is at the bottom, then put the whole mass into the smoker. Don’t force it all the way to the bottom of the smoker, because the flame almost definitely will go out, even if it acts like it won’t. I pump the bellows a few times, slowly, to get the flame really going. Once thick smoke starts coming out of the top, you can push the burlap a little farther down (do this on one side, not in the center, so the burlap gets a little more spread out) and then close the lid. I’d recommend a long stick or a pencil to shove the burlap down.
It takes a few tries before you figure it out, and even then, sometimes it just goes out. If you forget about it while your working and don’t pump it every so often, it’s very likely to go out. I’ve found this out the hard way dozens of times. For multiple hives you’ll definitely want to have multiple bunches of burlap ready for use. When I did my split I used one clump for the first hive, and then added the second clump before moving on. I had more smoke than I needed the whole time, and it kept the bees calmer as a result. The smoker was going so well that I rarely had to worry about it, because it was angled so that wind was constantly blowing in from the back and pushing the smoke over the hives/ through the clouds of bees. Working with the wind is an important thing!
So now I know the secret of successfully lighting a bee hive smoker!  I hope this helps some other beekeepers out there as well!

6 thoughts on “Italian Week – The Secret Of Lighting A Bee Hive Smoker

  1. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Really glad you brought this up: this has to be one of the most frustrating things about beekeeping. (Did you ever notice that the smoker only seems to die when you REALLY need it?) Probably because you’re so busy you forgot to use it or it fell over and you didn’t notice or… ; )
    Burlap is a favourite around here too; probably because it, like bindertwine, was easily found around the farm. Some people I know also swear by wood shavings as their “no fail” fuel. Perhaps by having a variety you could choose your “scent of the day”? My dad preferred some Staghorn Sumach bobs in his as it was always high and dry and easily available in the bee yard.
    LOVE the “passive” smoker idea as using the wind currents this way mimics the effect of a more distant, less threatening fire and the bees don’t get as upset… Same reasoning applies for Mike’s cooling the smoke through fresh, green grass.
    Btw, the business end of your hive tool is also useful for pushing smouldering stuff around (and won’t catch fire by accident: )

  2. SaraC says:

    Burlap! Good idea. I was counseled to use dry ponderosa pine needles (which we have in abundance in my area) and that’s all. Just light a wad of them, stuff them down and keep pushing the bellows as you add more and more. Works pretty good, although I never need smoke for more than a few minutes (only one colony).

    • It’s so humid here that it’s hard to keep anything burning!! I’ve tried leaves and twine, but I’m holding out great hopes for burlap!! (Available at your local hardware and feed stores too…)

  3. Emily Heath says:

    Thanks Deborah! Where do you get your burlap from? I saw coffee roasters mentioned in one of the quotes above, but my local coffee shops tend to have long queues and I’m not sure how the staff would take being asked for some burlap!

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