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Why does smoke calm bees?

The smoke affects the bees and calms them down

Since ancient times, people have realized that smoke calms bees. They did not know the reason for this, but they saw the effect in practice.

The use of smoke to calm bees in history

During the Stone Age beekeeping period, we find no evidence of smoke being used to calm bees.  It is likely that people used smoke, but there is no evidence of it due to the lack of written and graphic sources.

The earliest evidence of the use of smoke to calm bees is found in the beekeeping of ancient Egypt.  Dating back to 2650 BC we can find a picture in the solar temple of Niuserra (Niuserra was a Pharaoh of Egypt during the 5th dynasty). In the picture we see that one man, seated on one knee, brings something like a vessel to the beehives, from which he blows smoke into the beehive.

Ancient Egyptians use smoke to calm bees
The left side shows a man trying to blow smoke into a beehive with his mouth. Picture in the solar temple of Niuserra. 2650 BC

Ancient Greek beekeeping also used smoke to calm the bees. During excavations in Crete at the Palace of Knossos, objects identified as beekeeping equipment were found. The age of these items is 1700-1450 BC. Among them was an object that looked like a smoking pots.

Smoking pots from Crete Palace Knossos
Smoking pots from Crete Palace Knossos 1700-1450 BC.

Medieval beekeeping continued to use smoke when working with the bee. An illustration in the Bari Exultet Roll (1025 c.a.) shows us how medieval beekeepers used smoke from a fire. They use it to try to catch a swarm that is in a tree.

Medieval beekeepers used smoke from a fire to calm a swarm of bees
An illustration in the Bari Exultet Roll demonstrates the use of smoke. (1025 c.a.) Cathedral Archives, Bari

Reasons why smoke calms bees

When bees feel threatened, they release special pheromones that alert the rest of the hive to the approaching threat. The insects immediately prepare for defense. When smoke enters the hive, it neutralizes the effects of the secreted substances. The bees stop sensing the pheromones and believe that the threat has passed. As a consequence, they behave calmly in the future, which allows you to collect honey without fear of stings.

Smoke not only calms insects, but also allows humans to trick them for their own benefit. Bees have settled in the hollows of trees for many millennia. And where there is a forest, there is the possibility of fire. The penetration of smoke inside the hive is a signal to bees that a fire may have started nearby. Because of this, they eat honey in a hurry, depositing it in an additional part of the stomach – the goiter. In this way they want to save some of the honey before leaving the hive for good and leaving it to the fire. When the smoke drowns out the pheromones, the bees calm down, but their abdomen is already full of honey. This makes them sluggish and unable to sting because they are unable to bend their bodies to sting.

The goiter of a bee which is filled with honey in case of smoke and makes stinging more difficult
The goiter of a bee which is filled with honey in case of smoke and makes stinging more difficult.

How to smoke bees

For artificial smoke supply beekeepers use a special device – a smoker. The design is a cylindrical body with a cone-shaped hole at the end.

Inside, rotten wood and wood chips are put on, which are easily amenable to fire. When the “fuel” is placed in the smoker, it is set on fire and covered with a lid. Through the hole the smoke begins to come out. Its amount is increased with the help of bellows attached to the handle of the design. They direct the air flow inside and literally blow the smoke outside, creating a powerful flow.

How to prepare a smoker to calm the bees.


So there are two reasons for calming bees with smoke:

– Smoke muffles the pheromones that bees release in case of danger, so no signal is transmitted, after which the bees begin to defend their hive.

– The smoke signals the bees of an impending fire, and they instinctively store honey in their goiter. After that, it becomes hard for them to bend down and sting. In addition, in all likelihood, bees are simply in the mood to be rescued by an impending fire and do not want to be aggressive, as there are more important things to do.

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