Reader Felicia wants to know why beekeepers use smokers when they they work. Does smoke really make bees docile? The answer is no, it’s doesn’t really make them docile, Felicia, in fact it agitates them. However it agitates them in such a way that they’re disinclined to notice a beekeeper messing around in the hive. Smoke obviously makes bees think the hive is on fire. They become alarmed and do what you or I would do if we discovered our house burning: collect as many valuables as we can carry and head for the exit. Fire departments actively discourage that sort of thing of course. Hunting for treasures wastes time that’s better used for leaving.
But bees are stubborn. They don’t heed government warnings. They start stuffing themselves with food — as much as they can hold — since for all they know it’ll be many miles several days before they can find a new hive site and the colony must survive until then. So they stuff, and stuff, and stuff…and the beekeeper is the least of their worries. Why bother defending a home that’s burning down anyway? And let’s say there are a few bees here or there that are inclined to get aggressive: they’re so plump with honey by then that they have trouble bending their abdomens to sting you.
So that’s the effect smoke has on bees, Felcia. And in case you were wondering: once the hive is closed back up and the smoker taken away, the bees just spit all the honey back into the comb and it’s none the worse for wear.