Beekeeping without Smoke

The beekeeper’s smoker is seen as an essential piece of equipment; it is certainly the most effective way of putting manners on the bees but it is not always either appropriate or necessary. Consider for a moment the lion tamer – he doesn’t rush at his animals jabbing away with his chair but if he needs them, his whip and his chair are at hand; the beekeeper should view his smoker the same way.

The smoker works by diverting the bees’ attention from one perceived threat – you – to a greater fear – fire. However, there are ways of going through your bees without them even noticing you are there at all, let alone a threat. If you can master the following techniques you will be able tip-toe through your bees and observe them behaving naturally and enjoy your beekeeping much more.

However, things do go wrong so always have your smoker with you just in case, especially later in the year when your bees are feeling their own strength and have honey to defend.

  • Light your smoker;
  • Get yourself a water sprayer and make sure it’s only got water in it – not insecticide;
  • Have an empty nuc box close by;
  • Wear lightweight rubber gloves – Marigolds are the best. Bees sting quite easily through them but they will allow you to be more dextrous and polite;
  • Never allow yourself to get into the habit of  crushing bees, if you do they will notice you and they will attack you and one day it will be the queen you crush;
  • Pretend you are a bomb disposal expert and approach your hives with the respect you would give to a row of ticking bombs;
  • Do not smoke the entrance but do make sure your smoker is still alight and give it a few puffs now and then to keep it going;
  • Hum a little tune;
  • Gently remove the roof and set in upside down on the ground by your side;
  • Insert your hive tool under the crown board, place your other hand above it and prise it free all the way round, as gently and quietly as possible – twist it a a bit if need be but do not lift it straight off;
  • Once it’s free, rest a short while till you hear the stroppy buzzing die down;
  • Now slowly lift off the crown board – do not shake off the bees, just place it bee side down on the upturned roof. As long as you didn’t smoke the entrance it is unlikely your queen will be on the crownboard;
  • Do not start scraping at the brace comb yet;
  • Look into the top of your hive and note where the centre of the cluster is then locate a frame which looks like it might come free without a fight preferably well away from the broodnest;
  • If your bees are coming up at you a bit spray them with a little water. This will prevent them from flying but will not divert them in the way smoke would so continue to not annoy them;
  • Slow your movements;
  • On no account crush bees. If you do, they will be after you and they will sting you and when they begin to sting you – you have begun to lose;
  • Now start to free that frame. There is a way of doing this with the minimum of noise and vibration – use your loaf because words fail me here;
  • Gently lift the frame out trying not to roll bees. Do not shake it. Make sure the queen is not on it and place it in the nuc. If you need more space lift out another and place it in the nuc. No shaking!
  • Proceed now to work your way through the hive frame by frame till you find the first frame with brood then start to look for the queen;
  • Always check the dark side of the frame first as the queen will move away from the light;
  • Unless you have disturbed the bees she will almost certainly be on a frame with eggs and you may even catch her in the act of laying. Let her finish before you mark her;
  • Once you have found the queen and established that all is well, you can put the hive back together again.  This is where the smoker does come in really handy – blow a few puffs across the top bars, not down into the hive, just enough to send the bees down. Now you can scrape the top bars without chopping their heads off;
  • If you need to shake bees – spray them a little to wet their wings first then shake away – the water will stop them flying back up at you.

There now – wasn’t that better?

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