Smoking out the problems

Smoking out the problem

Smart Farmer How To
SMOKING: Calming bees before opening the hive is imperative for personal safety. Photo: Shutterstock.

SMOKING: Calming bees before opening the hive is imperative for personal safety. Photo: Shutterstock.

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Beekeepers, of course, do get stung, but they have several methods of reducing the risk; wearing appropriate protective gear, breeding non-aggressive bees from queens of known quiet stock, and using smoke when working a hive.

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Bees defend their hives vigorously and the stings of the honey bee are a strong deterrent to would-be beekeepers.

Beekeepers, of course, do get stung, but they have several methods of reducing the risk; wearing appropriate protective gear, breeding non-aggressive bees from queens of known quiet stock, and using smoke when working a hive.

You can open a hive without smoke, but a sane man won't do it twice!

So how does smoke work? This has been the subject of mythology, of serious thought and some research, but the full explanation is still somewhat elusive.

The myth passed down from generation to generation of beekeepers by word and print would have it that bees smell the smoke, 'think' that there is a fire and rush into the hive to fill their bellies with honey ready to flee.

With a full belly, they say, the bees do not feel so aggressive and, what's more, they cannot bend their abdomens to sting.

There is only one thing wrong with this theory; it just does not happen! Any observant beginner will see that the application of smoke makes some bees fly out and some disappear in.

When the hive is opened there are certainly quite a few bees with heads into honeycomb cells, but there are a few more thousand ready and able to sting.

A more credible explanation is related to the bee's acute sense of smell.

Their activities are controlled by pheromones emitted by individuals to exert a behavioural effect on others of the species.

And in a bee colony these pheromones are mediated by smell. A bee's 'nose' in the antennae is far more sensitive than our human noses.

Of the many pheromones operative in a colony, the relevant one here is the one provoking alarm and attack secreted by glands at the base of the sting.

Studies reveal that its main active chemical is isopentyl acetate. Released by the guard bees when threatened it quickly disseminates through the hive with the signal defend and attack.

Since this is mediated by smell it is logical to deduce that smoke blocks or reduces olfactory sensitivity.

Powerful foreign smells in the smoke overwhelm the more delicate though familiar odour of the pheromone.

For beekeepers, it seems to matter little what is used in the barrel of the smoker to produce the smoke.

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