Chances are, if you think of a beekeeper, you get a mental image of someone in a big, white suit with a little mesh veil – one hand prodding an open beehive and a smoking metal canister in the other. There is a reason for that.
In the wild, bees live in hollow spaces in dead trees, and that is why beekeepers use smoke and wear white.
Ok, I can expand on that a bit – while living in their cozy tree hives the bees don’t have too much to worry about, except for bears climbing up the tree and eating all their honey and honeycomb. So bees have evolved to really dislike bears, and anything that looks, smells or otherwise seems like it may be a bear.
For instance, they don’t like any large creature lumbering around in dark colors, because it reminds them of bears – so beekeepers always wear white. Similarily, they don’t like the smell of any heavy breathing, or anything violently jarring their hive – because it reminds them of bears. Some beekeepers say that women have more success beekeeping with regards to getting stung less because they generally aren’t as smelly as men.
Perfume is another no-no though, it doesn’t remind them of bears, but they don’t like it. Probably because they have such a sensitive sense of smell – for them someone wearing a little hint of chanel is probably like having the old lady on the bus who has doused herself with half the bottle trying to crawl into your nose.
So to recap, bees don’t like bears – if you are doing anything bee related, wear white, don’t breathe heavy, move smoothly and go easy on the perfume. Same rules as being slick on the dance floor of the nearest discotheque, really.
And while we are on the subject of burning up the dance floor, what is the deal with the smoker?
There is one other enemy of bees in the wild – fire. Unfortunately, bees can’t sting fire, and they don’t have any water tanks up in their tree to start a miniature bee fire department, so if a bee’s wild tree home catches on fire the bees are out of luck.
The bees have evolved to accept this, so when they smell smoke, they start to gorge themselves on honey. This is a winning strategy – if the fire comes and takes them, at least they died after eating their favourite meal to the point of excess. If they leave the tree as it gets too hot, then they have a full belly to get to work building a new hive somewhere. Basically they know that their hive is doomed, so they load up on food and get ready to head out to start over.
The other effect of smoke is that it masks the pheremones bees use to communicate – as mentioned above, bees have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell. They use chemical pheremones to communicate and the smoke prevents them from effectively communicating.
Beekeepers use smoke to make the most of these two effects. They use their smoker to blow cool smoke over the bees while going through the hive and this causes two things to happen. The bees can’t use their pheremones to sound the alarm – one or two bees might notice there is a giant white alien pulling apart their home, but since it seems like none of the other bees are sounding the alarm, they all just play it cool and eat honey. They eat so much honey that they can’t physically bend their bodies enough to sting. It’s like trying to touch your toes after the 3rd plate on Christmas dinner. So no one sounds the alarm, and everyone is too full to do anything about it. Good job smoke.
I personally use a spray bottle with water and a hint of peppermint oil rather than smoke when tending my bees. Bees don’t like getting wet, and a fine mist with some peppermint also masks the transfer of phermones, so it seems to achieve the same result for me. I figure it doesn’t stress the bees out quite as much – it may be like getting sprayed with a hose while snorting crushed candy canes but that is better than freaking out because you think your house is burning down once a week isn’t it?