An important part of a beekeeper’s kit is a bee smoker. The idea of using smoke is that it calms down the bees, but honestly, that’s not been my experience. What it does is cause the bees to retreat into their hive (instead of swarming around your hands and head). I’ve been told that smoke causes the bees to think that they need to abandon or save the hive so they start consuming the honey. The honey causes them to become sleepy or sluggish just like us when we eat too much sugar. So the net effect is that the bees “appear” to be calmer, though I’ll admit, sometimes it feels like I’m just stirring them up more.
Regardless of why smoke works, it definitely helps keeps the little girls from going too berserk. But keeping up a good smoke from the smoker can be a challenge since some fuels burn too quickly and others not quickly enough. For example, my go-to fuel is pine needles, not because they’re good, but because I have them lying around everywhere. Pine needles ignite quickly, but they don’t make smoke for long and they burn too quickly. That means I’m always re-lighting my smoker and reaching for more fuel.
Dry leaves make smoke when thrown into a fire, but leaves don’t work well in a smoker unless you already have a good fire burning and then they don’t last long. Living in Texas, many local people suggest using the bark-straw that comes off of palm trees, which burns slowly and makes a lot of smoke. I can testify that this works if you have an ample supply of palm trees.
I’ve had good experience using hard wood fuel pellets from TSC, but you’ll need a little butane torch to get them to ignite and you’ll need to spend money for pellets. Plus, it can take some time to get a really good fire going. Hardwood sticks and twigs work well if you let them burn long enough to get a good fire going, but they can also be a challenge to keep burning (just make sure to use dry wood!). Here’s a short video on how to use wood sticks or chips in your smoker.
But the fuel source that works absolutely the best for me is probably something you would never think of or expect, and I admit, it’s not for everyone. In my pursuit of free fuel sources while working on hives in the field, I have re-discovered a great source of fuel—cow patties. Yes, that’s right. Cow patties.
I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books in the Little House on the Prairie series as a child and thinking it odd (or disgusting) that they used cow patties (dung) for fuel. I guess if you live on a prairie and you have no trees, you get creative. I thought that food cooked on a cow patty fire must have tasted awful due to the smell. Here’s the interesting thing—burning cow patties actually smells okay! I know it’s hard to believe, but if you think about the fact that a cow only eats grass, then why would their poop smell like anything but grass? And indeed, cow patties just smell like burning grass, and it’s actually a pleasant smell. Plus, it takes very little effort to light a cow patty and it produces a ton of smoke. So I use pine needs to start the fire and then cow patties to generate the smoke.
Cow patties work great in a bee smoker.
Now of course, I don’t use fresh cow patties. I’m talking about cow patties that have lain around the pasture long enough that the water is gone and you can see they are starting to disintegrate. This is the perfect time to grab the patty. If it bothers you picking up a cow patty, just remember that you have your bee suit on so you’re already wearing gloves so it’s not like I ever actually touch a cow patty with my bare hands.
The cons to using cow patties is that you need a supply of them so this solution isn’t for everyone. The second drawback is that if you’re allergic to any kind of grasses, burning cow patties is likely to hit the same allergy response. I have airborne allergies to hay so I wear a respirator mask around the farm anyways so burning cow patties isn’t a big deal to me.
So whatever you use, if you happen to have cows (and maybe horses—I haven’t tried horse poop but it may work just as well) and you’re looking for a free bee smoker fuel, give a cow patty a try next time and see how it works for you. I can guarantee that’ll it’ll make a lot of smoke.