Fuel for Smokers
By John Howat
Published: Monday 9th October, 2006
Updated: Thursday 19th March, 2009
As a youngster, my father once accused me of being a pyromaniac because I loved lighting and tending the bonfire (he didnít go in for the modern idea of positive parenting to any noticeable degree). But was he right, rather than showing off a new word? Maybe this was one of the things that attracted me to beekeeping in the first place Ė the chance to play with fire, albeit carefully controlled within a smoker.
For twenty-five years I have been lighting a smoker with intermittent success using a variety of substances for fuel, and whilst tending something over one hundred hives for the last ten years I have had plenty of time to consider the smoke and its effect on the bees and myself. Questions have occurred to me, such as:
Why does the smoker only get going properly as I finish the last hive?
If the smoke is having that affect on me Ė choking, watering eyes Ė what on earth is it doing to the poor bees?
Why is tar dripping from my smoker?
What fuel do I use?
Anything that will smoulder is a potential fuel, but I have developed my favourites. I may be at a site for several hours examining the bees, so I need a fuel that will keep going without too much puffing of the bellows; that will burn slowly so that I do not have to replenish it too often; that is easily gathered in quantity and easily stored; that gives a cool smoke that is not too unpleasant when I get a face-full; and ideally does not create too much ash, necessitating a restart after an hour or two.
Cardboard is the obvious fuel, and one that I will use in an emergency, but it fails all of my requirements above. The smoke is very hot and intensely acrid; it burns quickly, requiring frequent checking and it is very prone to produce tar and ash. Some cardboard is treated with a fire retardant chemical or is very hard which makes it a real devil to light and keep going. Nonetheless, it is a good, easily started fuel for a quick inspection or to chase the bees inside when blocking the entrance. A word of caution: remove any adhesive tape or rubber band used to secure the cardboard as the combustion products from these could harm the bees.
I was initiated at Sparsholt College with hessian sacking. Old hessian sacking that has been left outside in the rain to rot and soften is best. New sacking does not seem to light as well, and un-weathered sacking may have unwanted chemicals on it. This fuel works well, but I find the smoke too acrid for my liking. Nor is sacking all that easy to find. However it is a good standby.
I have found three fuels which suit me very nicely
1.†Tinder-dry friable heartwood from old fallen branches of, for example, oak trees is perfect. It has to be soft enough to pull apart with bare hands or the hive tool; firm wood is not much use. This will burn very easily with an almost pleasant smoke with low ash and tar, and is ideal for starting the smoker.
2. Corn-cob kernels. I keep some bees on game cover where the farmers grow maize as winter feed for the birds. The cobs are left in the field and the birds, and mice, voles, and other creatures eat the seed over the winter. In the spring the weathered cob husks when sun-dried make perfect fuel. Convenient in size, they have a nice rough surface to take fire, and being essentially compressed straw burn very slowly with a gentle smoke. I collect a large (hessian) sack-full at the spring inspection and by the end of the season I am running out. I find that mixing a few of these with some of the tinder-wood the smoker will go on for hours, with refilling only being required occasionally. On days where each hive only requires a touch of smoke from time to time it will sit there quietly smouldering away until needed.
3. The other fuel which I like very much is dried pony droppings from the New Forest. They need to be rain-washed and sun dried to whiteness. By this time they are merely grass pellets of an ideal size for the smoker. They burn well but slowly and give a very nice cool smoke. The only problem is storage; they must be kept dry, and I donít like the idea of keeping them too long but of course they can go on the garden. I only use droppings from forest ponies as stabled horses are fed all sorts of things which might harm the bees.
Plenty of other fuels are available, of course. I know that some beekeepers use the dried product of their garden shredder. I have tried this and found it to work fairly well at first, but quickly the ash produced combined with the shredded fuel clogged the smoker. I also thought it hazardous as sparking pieces of burning shreddings would fly out of the smoker nozzle at times. Dried puff-ball fungus is reputed to dope the bees. I have never found enough of it to make an investigation, but it does smoulder nicely. Old pine-cones work as does dry bark, but are best mixed with other fuels. Pine needles, leaf mould and detritus from the ground, if dry enough, makes a good emergency fuel but is worse than shreddings for clogging the smoker.
Handfuls of dried grass work well for a short time, but it burns too quickly for me. Only rarely can I get away with no smoke at all after the first burst so itís a constant replenishment. I have recently tried stuffing grass cuttings into the cardboard inners from toilet rolls with some success. Work is continuing on this project.
New fuels from various compressed materials are available to buy, and they work, but I like the challenge of finding my own fuel. Furthermore with the amount that I would need the cost would be prohibitive. However, I do keep a supply of a starter fuel, in the form of a fibrous board treated with an accelerator (possibly saltpetre) which is very useful when I have let the other fuel get a bit damp. A piece of the starter board is broken off, put amongst the other pieces of fuel in the smoker, then lit. It fizzes away and sets the rest going. (I tried making fire starters of my own using cardboard soaked in sodium chlorate, but the chemical wore off after a week or so - not much use).
Why will the smoker not start?
It could be damp fuel, or fuel that is too dense to take light easily. I use a few scraps of paper, then small pieces of fuel - tinder-wood, cardboard or hessian, then a mixture of wood and maize husks usually works well; a small amount of cardboard or Hessian sacking also does the job quite well. Again, some people use a blow-lamp, but that smacks to me of cheating.
Alternatives to using a smoker
I have not mentioned artificial smokes. I tried the brown liquid but I could not get on with it. It was messy, smelly, wet, and it did not seem to me that the bees responded very well. I do carry a couple of cans of Fabi-Spray, a repellent spray manufactured in Europe. This is extremely effective at moving bees away. I find it very good for chasing the bees inside when blocking the entrance on a warm evening before moving the hive. It works much more quickly than smoke. I also use it to spray the branch or whatever after taking a swarm, to discourage the bees from returning, and once used it to chase a swarm of bees out of a wall cavity that they were in the process of entering. Itís really useful for shooing the bees away from the back of the Land-Rover when honey has been brought back or spilt inside. Itís O.K for a quick skirmish into the hive when I only wish to check that all seems well without removing any brood frames. But for inspection, I prefer the smoke and so do the bees.
There they are, some of my thoughts on smoker fuels.. Itís funny what passes through the mind when working with bees.
I realise that many if not all beekeepers will have different opinions from me and each other on this subject; thatís true of most things beekeeping. Why not send the Editor your views if you disagree strongly enough with anything that I have said? Maybe a definitive answer can be achieved Ė but Iíll not hold my breath.
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