Bees and Honey: The big smoke debate

Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones

Our bee blogger, Stephen Jones, has decided to combine his interest in cartoons with his passion for bees.

"I love cartoons because anything is possible, never mind how ridiculous," said Stephen. "So there's no limit to your imagination.

'Each cartoon has to communicate a really simple idea which is so intriguing you want to know more. It's a really good way to learn', he added, citing a recent study at Sheffield Hallam University.

We'll be featuring the Windsor-based beekeeper's comic strips on a regular basis.

Bad Hair Day

I’ve never been convinced that smoke calms bees. Whether you use a little or a lot, if a hive is feisty the bees still come rushing out, pinging off the veil and crawling into your boots at the slightest provocation.

I’ve tried various fuels in my smoker, and waiting for different periods of time for the smoke to take effect, but it makes no difference. I’ve even tried puffing the stuff under my armpits because some wag told me that ‘bees don’t like the smell of sweat’!

I’m beginning to suspect this smoking lark is just a ritual that beekeepers perform to keep the public mystified and give beekeepers a sense of security, but I’m prepared to be convinced by the evidence.

Not that there’s much… which is hardly surprising. Hive temperament is highly variable. Poor weather, time of day, nectar-flow (high or low), disease, wasps, and queenlessness can all make bees grumpy. Clumsy beekeepers and a noisy environment can also aggravate, and of course some bees are just evil incarnate!

So trying to do a well controlled study of the effects of various remedies to calm bees is nigh on impossible. And how would you assay ‘calmness’?

Well John Free at the UK’s Rothamsted Experimental Station had a go at trying to understand the effect of smoke. Back in 1961 he observed that objects infused with bee venom were less frequently stung if the bees were smoked, and in 1968 he reported that smoke encouraged bees (in small colonies) to gorge on honey. When the bees were provoked the less greedy tended to do more stinging.

On the basis of these studies a whole mythology has developed in the beekeeping world about bees gorging on honey before escaping forest fires, so bloated they are unable to sting because their distended bellies!

What tosh. When vandals set hives alight the bees die. The notion that bees, on smelling smoke, dine on honey before flying off to safety is romantic twaddle.

A more compelling explanation is offered by Kirk Visscher and colleagues who found that smoke and phenylacetaldehyde (which has a strong floral odour) reduced the sensitivity of bees’ antennae to alarm pheromones.

It seems plausible – a good puff of smoke or Eau de Cologne up anyone’s nostrils is likely to disrupt their sense of smell for 20 minutes!

And there’s the rub. Scientists invariably push doses to the maximum in order to get an effect. Put bluntly – no result means no publication. In the real world of beekeeping we have no idea how the dose used in these experiments relates to what we are administering at the hive.

Not that anyone’s worrying. Ninety-five percent of beekeepers happily use smoke even though it’s contains highly toxic and noxious compounds that are suspected of contributing to respiratory disease.

It also causes fires. For this reason in parts of the developing world beekeepers and honey-hunters have been experimenting with spraying water or sugar solutions to try and calm bees, and avoid bush fires.

In the developed world there have been two responses: One was to patent, formulate and market artificial smoke; the other was to go all eco-mystic and spray water containing essential oils, vanilla or anise.

Despite the lack of evidence, according to their advocates all of these approaches work.

But in my mind if everything works then nothing works, so I think in future I’ll forgo the smoke – but not the smoker.

I’ll leave it burning … just in case!

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