Oct. 6, 2022

Living With Your Smoker (094)

Living With Your Smoker (094)

It's Not What You Think!

Beekeepers have a love/hate relationship with their smokers.  Beekeeper families don’t have split emotions… they tend HATE smokers and their lingering ‘perfume’. How beekeepers manage their smokers impacts more than their bees. In today’s episode, Kim and Jim talk about smokers.

Arguably more so than a veil, the quintessential identifier of a beekeeper is a smoker. It is in the hand of every trope, every caricature of a beekeeper. In fact it is so emblematic, you can go into many antique shops and pay as much or more for an old, rotten, rusted smoker than you can buy a new one, made of stainless steel!

How do you manage your smoker when you are in the bee yard? Do you just keep it on the top of a hive? Or do you keep it in its own box to prevent accidental fires in the bee yard or while in transport to and from? What is your favorite smoker fuel? Kim and Jim have seen it all. Listen today. They are not just blowing smoke

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow or subscribe today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at www.betterbee.com


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 94 – Living With Your Smoker


Kim Flottum: Jim, the other day when we were talking, you said something about having something to do with your smoker and I didn't get past that. I forgot what was it you wanted to know?

Jim Tew: I did talk about that. Smokers are just as common as they can be and beekeeping, but without one, you're dead in the water, more or less so I want to keep that thing going. We talked about that for a bit. You want to talk about it some more?

Kim: Let me tell you how I work mine. I've got a system I've worked out over the years and it's pretty full proof. I've never had a problem with it, he says carefully.

Jim: He says carefully. [chuckles]

Kim: Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today we're going to talk about Living With Your Smoker because you got to live with your smoker. You don't just use it in the bee yard. It's all over the rest of your world so that's what we're going to talk about today.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.

Kim: Let me tell you my system, and this is the one I've worked out that I'm not going to say it's full proof, but it works pretty well. When I'm going to go out to the bee yard, let's say I'm going to go out tomorrow afternoon, and I know that in my garage there's a five gallon pale, and in that five gallon pale, there's about six inches of dry pine needles that I use for fuel. There's four or five sheets of newspaper that I use to light it with. There's four or five hive tools and I got three different kinds of hive tools in there so I can get whatever I want. I got two smokers. I got a veil that collapses and takes up almost no space so I got all of that in one pale.

Tomorrow when I'm ready to go out, I'll go out and I'll get that pale and sitting on the side of my garage right outside the big open door, there's a bench that I captured somewhere a long time ago that nobody wanted. I put my pale on the bench and take my smoker out and I put my fuel in and I get it going and I grab a hive tool and I'm ready to go because I can walk to my bee yard. It's 30 yards behind my house.

When I'm done, I walk back to my garage and the first thing I do is I open my smoker and I dump it up. I have a gravel driveway and I dump it in my gravel driveway and it just disappears. It smokes for a little bit. You stomp on it, it goes out and I lay my smoker down next to that bench to let it cool. If there's any coals left in it because I didn't get them dumped out because it's laying on its side. It's going to go out anyway.

Jim: Hold up. What are you burning?

Kim: I planted a long needle pine when I moved to this house 30 something years ago and it supplies enough smoker fuel for 50 beekeepers every summer.

Jim: Yes. All right, Got it. All right, go ahead about your story.

Kim: All right. When I'm done working bees. I've got the smoker out, it's laying on the ground. I got all the stuff back in the bucket that I need back in the bucket. I go in and I have supper. I come out after supper. My smoker's cool, I put it back on the pale. I put the pale on the garage. Everything's neat, clean, put away and done.

Jim: Well, aren't you just pleased with yourself, you should patent this [laughter] but you're right. Kim, while you were talking, I was thinking that this old smoker thing is a lot like hive stands. It's a lot like so many parts of beekeepers. There are an endless number of ways you can do these things. Smokers, hive stands, the kind of veil you wear and what you've just described with that smoker is neat and clean, it seems to work. I do want to know. That's a plastic pale. You can't even get metal five gallon cans anymore, right?

Kim: No, it's plastic. That's why I let it cool before I put it back in.

Jim: I understand.

Kim: There's one more angle I have here that makes it easier for me. I don't have to put it in a truck and drive to a bee yard either in the back or in the cab. If it's in the cab, I'm not smelling smoke. I don't come home smelling like a smoker. If it's in the back, I don't have to worry about it flaring up because it got wind blowing through it, so I've got some real advantages there.

Jim: That's a point that you and I don't have to worry about, but I do have several commercial beekeeper doomsday stories where that hired help invariably just set a smoker on the back of the truck. It wasn't that far to the next yard. Then by the time they got there, they've got something a fire in the back of the truck. It was two stories I've got ended up in some destroyed equipment there and a lot of hysteria. Don't run up and down the road with that smoker back in the back lit, it will flame up and flame out.

Kim: There are people who have boxes built for that sort of thing, so you don't get wind to go in across it. They're windproof and that seems to work. A bunch of years ago I was visiting somebody in California and we were driving to someplace from a bee yard and a truck passed us and the haul back end was on fire and I'm sure the driver didn't see it because the supers on the back of the truck blocking his window, he couldn't see through. That truck ended up being burned completely, I found out. It can happen and it can be expensive.

Jim: Well, you've got a nice system worked out. Plus you seem to maintain your driveway in the process too.

Kim: Yes. It's getting a little darker every year, but that's okay.

Jim: Well, my technique is a variation on your theme and this was on my mind just as recently as yesterday because I went over to another beekeeper's house to have a look at his bees and he burns dried grass clippings. They're easy to light, but it's a fast fire and then it's all over. I was the smoker man yesterday, and I spent a lot of time with his smoker, his fuel, trying to keep that thing going and it was not fair, Kim, because I look klutzy and it's not my system. This is not the best way to do this, I don't think are, is simply that I'm not accustomed to using his dried grass system.

My story is a variation on a theme and it involves some luck. I don't know where I was, Kim, somewhere decades ago, I was at a flea market, I was at a garage sale. I don't know where I was, but there were three heavy duty, no nonsense, made in the old days, 20 gallon galvanized metal garbage cans with close, tight fitting lids. I bought all of them and my intent was to put garbage in them.

But as the years passed and those cans sit around and they will be here long after I am, they don't make them like this anymore, Kim. I had those three, I actually had five of those cans, but three came into play. This is what I have evolved over all the years because I had these cans. One of the cans I put in there, wood shavings that I buy at a farm supply store. It's just animal bedding, usually cedar. I have never seen black walnut shavings, but if I did see them, I wouldn't buy those. Cedar is probably bad enough. All right, so you got that.

I'm buying this bale of animal bedding, cedar shavings, then I dump most of that into one of those cans and put the lid on it. Can number two is nothing. That's where I put my hot smoker in can number two. Now, in the old days, I had a spent, and it's important, Kim, that it be spent a 12 gauge shotgun shell spent, should I even say this? I do not want any listener to put a live shell in that smoker. This was a hall, this was a 12 gauge hall and it fits perfectly in the spout of that smoker. For years that I used that as a plug for the smoker.

I dropped that shell in there and then put the smoker in that can and close it off and then leave it there and let it burn out on its own. That leaves the third can unspoken for. The third can is where everything else was. The paper towel roll that I used, the igniter and my hive tool and that third can. All right, so three cans, right, Kim. One has clippings in it. One has shavings in it. The second can has the smoker in it, the third can has my gear and whatever it takes to light it up. I don't leave a veil out there. More on that later or not. That's not important.

Kim, this is what I really like about what I do, because I happen to have these cans. Here we are. I want to go back out there in a few minutes and I want to light up my smoker, and I want you to have a good billowing smoke going, so this is what I do.

Kim: Let me interrupt you and ask you a quick question here in a minute. When you put that smoker in and you close the top with a spent shotgun shell and you just put the cover on back on your trash can, does that smoker still smoke a little bit? Does that smoke get into your, wherever it is you store it, garage, or house or wherever or is it-

[cross talk]

Jim: No, see, it's outside. I leave it back in the bee yard, and it's a heavy can, Kim. I don't want to start a fire back there. It's a heavy can, and through the years, now you knocked on wood a bit ago, so I want to knock on wood now. A storm, the wind, nothing has ever blown those cans over. They're really heavy. That so far has never been a problem, and with the shell in there and the entrance plugged, it dies fairly quickly, and the smoke is contained. The smoker is contained, everything is closed up.

Can you think of any way, Kim, as I tell this story that that could be something wrong? Is there a fire hazard that's never happened before? I don't see anything, but I'm sure someone will let me know if they pick out something wrong about this.

Kim: Yes, I don't see it. You got the bee yard where you can leave stuff in there and you got the cans that'll keep that stuff safe and dry and away from prying eyes, and you don't have to bring it in and put it in your garage. I store my smoker once it's out and cool in that pale in my garage, and I can smell it when I walk in because I'm looking for it, but just barely.

Jim: You're right.

Kim: In the winter I can't at all.

Jim: I'm going to take a break, let our sponsors talk to us while I think about what I've said so far, to see if anything is extraordinarily stupid. Stand by.


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Jim: All right, not seeing any obvious way that I've done anything that would hazard anyone else. I've got that smoker in this can, it's all nice and cool, and this is where the action really starts, Kim. I take that cool smoker out and I remove that shell, which is now a long lost, long gone, Kim. Normally what I use now is just a watered up piece of newspaper or a paper towel that I held there in my third can to plug the smoker, and I pour everything that was in that smoker from the previous fire onto one of those heavy lids, so instead of pouring mine in the driveway, I pour mine in one of those lids.

I take my smoker, I take a sheet of newspaper or paper towel, or the paper towel that I use in the smoker before whatever is left over, it's what I stick that igniter to and poof, it flames right up. Then I take my hand and I pick up all that charcoal left from the previous burn and put that back in the smoker. As the bottom fuel puff, puff, puff, puff, puff, puff, get smoker going, and then I open that first can and take out new shavings and begin to pack the smoker, puff, puff, puff, keep it going, puff, puff, puff, keep it going, and then as I've got the smoker barrel filled up, then the last thing I do is add probably a piece of that paper towel I've been talking about, and then off I do go to my bee yard.

I like those shavings because they burn so long. Now you're going to argue with me on that sum probably. I burned pine needles a lot too when I was in the South. They're everywhere but they burned fast and they burned hot, so I was always packing it. These shavings burn a lot longer and really burn hot. When I'm all done, maybe in an afternoon I've had to repack that smoker one time. When I'm all done, I'm tired, I've had it, I just stop up the smoker, plug it, put it back in that contained closed up can, and off I do go.

What I've done then is I recycle, not that it's important, but I recycle everything. There's nothing to go in my driveway because when I come back again, take off that garbage can lid, pour everything in it, use those charcoal and there was the previous ashes from the previous fire and then start the whole thing all over again. That's really worked well for me. The three can method. Then when everything is gone, three cans closed up and I'm out of there.

Would I go buy three heavy, gauge, galvanized, garbage cans? Probably. What would you think those things cost now?

Kim: Well, that's what I use from a chicken feed, so I can probably pretty close tell you. They're probably not as heavy as yours, but they do the job. I'm thinking of how well they're built and how thick the walls are and things, but you could go get them. Maybe they exist.

Jim: I can't tell that I'm recommending this, I happen to have them. That's why I began to use these for my smoker, but I'm not prepared to tell people to go buy a bunch of these cans strictly for that purpose. I mean you'd be better off to use your technique, use a plastic five gallon bucket, not a metal bucket, and then go that way.

Kim: One of the things about the plastic bucket that I use is, although I don't hardly ever need it, it is mobile. I can grab that bucket, I've got everything I need in it, I grab my bee suit, so I've got fuel, I've got smoker, I've got hive tools, I've got everything I need, because for a lot of years I was doing meetings in somebody else's bee yard or I was going to a meeting where I'd be given a demonstration in a bee yard, and all I had to do was pick up that pale and I was ready to go.

Jim: Well, I got you on that too. I'm with you there. I don't take the fuel and when I go to my out yard, there are pines there. I hadn't planned on going there, but you're exactly right to bring that up. I take the smoker can and I take my gear can and off, I do go. Then once I get to this out yard, I fire the smoker there with pine needles, or with oak leaves or whatever I happen to find there.

My cans are mobile too, except I just have two of them. In the back of the truck, and the way the bales work on the cans that I use they help hold the lids on, and I have a cap that goes over the bed of the truck so I don't worry about air getting to the smoker, plus that pine straw burns out quickly. It doesn't burn as long as-- so you would possibly get a fire, but as quick and done with that.

Kim: Two things with pine needles, I wouldn't have the ashes left over or the unburnt fuel that you have, it's gone. The other thing is that I can put a lid on my pale because I don't have a truck, I got to closed vehicle and if I got to take that pale someplace I want that lid on because I don't want to get into my SUV tomorrow and have it smell like smoke, and then me smell like smoke.

Jim: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You're a bee guy, you're supposed to smell like smoke.


Your car is supposed to smell like smoke.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: your Bee suit smells like smoke. After I worked those bees of that guy yesterday burning grass clippings, I had to come straight home and go right to the shower. That odor just clings to you, doesn't it? That's worked well for me. I like my system just because it evolved because it was what I had. There was never any one day when I said, "Hey, I think I'm going to use these three cans for a smoker system." Just over time it evolved that way.

Kim: Yes. Pretty much the same way with me. Mine evolved because I was mobile more than a lot of people are. I had to have my stuff with me when I went to a meeting, so that led to how I work it now, and it works so well that, that's what I still do.

Jim: Well, I really can't fault your system. I'm not quitting mine. I don't think breathing any kind of smoke is good for us, I just said that in an article I wrote, but I can't get around it. There's nothing else that I can use that really subdues the bees as well as smoke. I really hope that there is a day coming when there's something we can use to coerce the bees into letting us visit, without us, both the bees and I having to breathe smoke.

Kim: Well, like they used to say until then, keep your smoker fuel dry and the smoke outside. I'll see you next time.

Jim: [laughs] I don't know how I can add anything to that, Kim.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: Hey, thanks for listening everyone and, Kim, thanks for tuning in and talking about something as sophisticated and complicated as smokers.

Kim: There you go. Next time.

Jim: All right.

[00:20:26] [END OF AUDIO]