How to Light a Smoker That Stays Lit

Smoke is one of the beekeeper's lines of defense, in addition to knowledge and protective clothing!

Most beekeepers use a smoker - a device designed to generate smoke from the incomplete combustion of various fuels.

The smoke produced is a cool, white smoke that calms the bees, without scorching them. It initiates a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire.

In addition, the smoke masks alarm pheromones released by guard bees or when bees are squashed during an inspection. The smoke and ensuing confusion creates an opportunity for the beekeeper to open the hive and work without triggering a defensive reaction from the bees.

Types of Fuel
There are many types of fuel that can be used in a smoker as long as it is natural and not contaminated with harmful substances. Popular fuels include twine (non-treated), burlap (non-treated), dried pine needles, cardboard (free of ink and labels), wood/cedar chips,  compressed cotton and sumac berries.

I personally use the dried pine needles, although the last item, sumac berries is of interest to me, as it's been said that the smoke created from burning sumac berries can cause the mites to drop from the bees. Which, if effective, is a great integrated pest management tool to have.

Lighting the Smoker
When lighting a smoker, I have my hive tool handy to pack fuel into the smoker.  It's a lot better to use a hive tool than burn my hands!

To begin, I crumple a small bit of newspaper into a ball and light it.

Once it's lit, I drop it into the smoker. Alternatively, you could place the newspaper into the smoker and use a long handle lighter and reach in and light it there.

I use the hive tool to pack the newspaper in towards the bottom, gently puffing the bellows to ensure the flame stays going.

Once the paper is lit, I place dried pine needles into the smoker.
While packing in the pine needles, gently puff the bellows. You can see in the picture below there is a lot of smoke already rising from the canister.

One suggestion that I've heard and seems to work well for me is to really pack the fuel (whatever fuel you use) into the smoker nice and tight. 

Loosely packed fuel will burn too quickly, and leave you with no smoke half way through an inspection, whereas tightly packed fuel will smolder longer, creating a thicker smoke for a longer period of time.

Once you've packed in your fuel, pumping the bellows to ensure the smoker is still smoldering, close the lid and allow the top of the smoker to act as a chimney and draw the smoke out of the smoker, thereby keeping the smolder going.

When you're finished using the smoker, if there is unburnt fuel in the smoker, you can suffocate the smoker with a cork, grass or other instrument inserted into the top of the smoker.  This will allow the smoker to burn out, and you can re-use the fuel for your next inspection.

If you don't succeed in lighting your smoker the first time, or it burns out within a few minutes, don't get frustrated, just dump out the fuel, and try again.

It's a good idea to practice lighting and keeping the smoker lit before needing to use it during an inspection.

If you have any suggestions for fuels, best practices, etc., please leave them in the comments section!

Comments For This Post: (5) | Post Your Comments! Hide The Comment Form
Holly says...
Date:   May 26, 2011, 3:22 pm

Thank you for sharing.  Keeping a smoker lit seems so simple, but there is some strategy involved.  I learned the hard way last year and decided to inspect my bottom deep without smoke because my smoker wouldn't stay lit.  Not a good idea...   Your post gave me some good ideas.  I hope to try sumac berries too!

Visit My Blog:

Chris (Show Me The Honey) says...
Date:   May 26, 2011, 3:27 pm

Hi Holly,
I'm glad you found this topic helpful!

I saw a demonstration by our local bee club where they packed the fuel so tight I thought for sure it was going to extinguish the smoldering fuel in the bottom. As it turns out, packing the fuel in tight helps to keep a constant supply of thick smoke (at least it does for me).

I've gotten good at keeping my smoker lit with just enough extra fuel left over, that my kids stand around in the yard waiting until I'm done with my inspections so they can take the smoker back to the drive way and make smoke rings with it (I suppose there are worst things in life they could be doing).  :)

P.S> Love your blog! Added you to the list of blogs I follow.

George in Georgia says...
Date:   June 22, 2013, 3:35 pm

Thanks for the tips!  I just finished and inspection, and had to relight the fool thing several times. I finally got a good "light" and was much more relaxed checking on the "girls."  I'll know better for the next time.

Donna says...
Date:   August 18, 2015, 10:11 am

Chris, good morning, I am curious what variety of sumac you refer to as having varroa drop possibilities? Taxonomic name if you have it please. Have you done any experimenting to see if this might be true?

Chris (Show Me The Honey) says...
Date:   August 18, 2015, 10:22 am

Hi Donna,
Unfortunately I don't have any details on the proposed sumac plant for varroa treatments in the smoker. Looking back, I've run nothing but dried pine needles and cedar chips (pet bedding material) through my smoker, and I find it works great.

If you find more details on sumac, please let me know, I'll post for others to have available!


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