Smoking bees is a common way to calm the insects down, whether it's for tending to the hive or harvesting honey. Beekeepers will often use a smoker to pull this off, which smokes its fuel and helps to relax a bee colony and significantly reducing the risk of a beekeeper suffering an injury while tending to their tasks. So what does smoke do to bees to make this happen?
Inhibits Their Sense of Smell
A bee's sense of smell is incredibly sensitive. Thanks to this enhanced sense, a bee can easily identify pollen on flowers, its fellow bees, and any intruders that come close to their hive. It's this last factor that can cause danger for a beekeeper, even if they don't have any intention of harming the colony as they tend to it. The bees don't know the difference and will stage an attack.
The smoke then impedes a bee's sense of smell, preventing them from taking up defensive action against a beekeeper. Because smoked bees won't recognize an intruder, they don't secrete the pheromones that alert the rest of their hive to the danger. As such, the colony stays calm, letting the beekeeper attend to their work.
Triggers Survival Instincts
However, blocking the hive's sense of smell isn't all that smoke does to help keep bees calm. A bee will recognize the smoke as indicative of a forest fire, which then triggers a survival instinct. The bees start to go into preservation mode, which includes preparing to build a brand new hive somewhere else—and to complete this process, bees need to produce wax.
When making beeswax, a bee needs to eat large amounts of honey; roughly one pound of wax takes eight pounds of digested honey. When they detect what they believe is a forest fire, the bees then start to gorge on food, making them tired and lethargic. The bees are much more docile, helping beekeepers stay safe while tending to them.
Smoke on its own does not harm bees in any way; however, too high temperatures can end up melting a bee's wings, causing problems later on. As such, a beekeeper needs to pay close attention to the heat when smoking out a beehive.
In the aftermath, it takes roughly ten to twenty minutes for bees to regain their pheromone sensitivity. From there, the life of a bee colony will return to normal, with no adverse effects on a colony's health. Because of its safe use, smoking has been a staple in beekeeping for generations.