The smoker is one of the most important pieces of beekeeping equipment. Used properly during colony manipulations, it will allow you to control the behavior of the bees. Moderate amounts of cool smoke repel bees and reduce defensive behavior.
Light a small quantity of fuel and puff the bellows until the material flames. Continue adding more fuel, while puffing the bellows, until the fire pot is full. When the smoke is hot or the smoker is throwing sparks, a handful of green grass or damp leaves inside the smoker lid will cool the smoke. As smoke volume becomes reduced, bluish in color, or too hot, refill the smoker and pack it down with your hive tool as you work. A properly lit and well-packed smoker provides enough smoke to work several colonies.
CAUTION: Exercise extreme care when using your smoker. Sparks and flames will damage the bees’ wings and body hairs. Carelessness can cause grass fires within the apiary, damage to your vehicle, and loss of honey house.
Initially, you should blow several puffs of smoke into the hive entrance (Figure 23) and into any other hive openings such as cracks through which bees can escape. After waiting a few seconds, direct a few puffs of smoke underneath the hive top and inner covers as you remove them. While you remove frames for examination and as you separate the hive bodies, direct more puffs of smoke onto the top bars to repel bees downward. One application of smoke usually lasts several minutes. As bees move back up to the tops of the frames, you normally can direct them back down with a couple puffs of smoke. Use the same procedure when reassembling and closing up the hive to help avoid unnecessarily crushing bees.
The amount of smoke needed will vary with genetic stocks, weather conditions, and intensity of the nectar flow. On warm, sunny days when a nectar flow is in progress, very little smoke may be needed. More smoke than usual will be needed during cool, cloudy weather. However, too much smoke may make bees run or boil out of the hive. Smoke is not usually needed when installing packages of bees or collecting swarms. Only small amounts of smoke should be used when removing honey supers and searching for the queens. Knowing the correct amount of smoke to use in a particular situation comes with experience.
Beginners are naturally reluctant to spend much time examining their colonies and often are overly cautious about handling the bees for fear of damaging the colony. With proper clothing and equipment as described previously, handling bees is neither difficult nor dangerous.
After properly lighting the smoker and putting on your veil, approach the hive from the rear and work from either side. If several colonies or rows of colonies face the same direction, examine the front hive or row first so that you later work behind the disturbed colonies. When beginning to work a colony, blow two or three puffs of smoke across the entrance and under the lid to discourage the guard bees as described above. (Use a puff or two every time a piece of equipment is removed or replaced. This keeps the bees under control and out of the way so few bees are killed as you work. Once the cover or a hive body is lifted up, remove it without letting it fall back down in place. Avoid bumping or jarring the hive during manipulation. In this way, you crush fewer bees and alarm the colony less. Work the bees when they are flying on clear, warm days between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. During this period, most of the old bees are in the field gathering nectar or pollen. Bees are easiest to handle during a nectar flow. Work bees slowly and with care; unnecessary excitement leads to confusion and stings.
After removing the outer telescoping cover, place it underside-up on the ground close beside you near the hive. In this position it serves as a place to put the upper hive bodies when you are examining the lower brood chamber of the hive (Figure 24). Bees adhering to the inner cover when it is removed can be knocked off at the hive entrance or left if few in number. Set the inner cover out of the way or use it as a temporary cover for boxes that have been removed as you are examining the lower boxes.
Bees seal the inner cover to hive boxes and frames together with propolis at every point of contact. Use the straight end of the hive tool to pry them apart; start with the second frame in on the side you are working from. Free the propolis seal and pull the first frame slowly out of the hive, look briefly for the queen, while holding the frame over the top of the hive (Figure 25). If she is not on the frame, set it on end against the opposite side of the hive away from your feet near, but not blocking, the entrance. If the queen is on the frame, carefully set and frame on end against the hive, take the next frame out, set it next to the first and then gently replace the first frame with the queen (you should know her location on the frame so you do not crush her as you replace the frame). After removing one frame, the rest of the frames can be more easily removed by breaking the propolis seal, moving them toward the open space, lifting to examine, and replacing them in order. Keeping combs in their original positions is desirable unless you feel a change in order will improve the condition of the colony.
To see eggs and young larvae, tilt the frame slightly so the sunlight comes over your shoulder falling into the cells of the comb. To look at the opposite side of the comb, raise or lower one end until the top bar is vertical, pivot the frame 180°F (81.4°C), and bring the top bar back to a horizontal position. Repeat the process before replacing the comb in the hive. When you finish examining the combs of a hive body, replace the first frame that was removed into its original position. When reassembling the hive, smoke the bees so that they move down and pause slightly before replacing hive bodies or covers; most of the bees will move out of the way.
Some bee stings are inevitable, but with care most can be avoided. When stung, scrape the stinger away with your fingernail, hive tool, or other sharp object. Lightly smoke the area stung. If clothing—such as gloves—receives large numbers of stings, more bees will sting in response to alarm odors left by the stings. Learn to handle bees so that stinging is minimized. Launder gloves and suits that have been stung multiple times.