In the July 2000 issue of American Bee Journal, Carl J. Wenning discusses, “The ‘Neglected’ Smoker,” (Vol. 140, No. 7, pp 537-542). As Mr. Wenning says, disregard for studies concerning both smoker and fuel management is reprehensible in light of the technology’s importance to beekeeping. Over the years, the smoker changed little with exception of the present use of stainless steel and protective heat guards. Smoker fuels too have not generated much research. Thus, Mr. Wenning mounted a qualitative study of possible fuels (bailing twine, bark mulch, burlap, cardboard, cedar chips, cotton rags, cotton, corn cobs, denim, fir needles, pine needles, peanut shells, “punk” wood, sumac seeds and twigs). The clear winners in terms of lightability, smoke density and temperature, ash discharge and longevity were red cedar chips and sumac seed heads, with corn cobs and pine needles not far behind.
Response to the article involved another concern, human health effects related to these fuels (American Bee Journal, Vol. 140, No. 10, pp. 803-806). There are over a hundred kinds of sumac, for example, and some seeds and smoke thereof could be poisonous. However, according to one of Mr. Wenning’s correspondents, “I do not know how the [Staghorn] sumac smoke influences the nasal passages or lungs if it is inhaled. I only know that I have been doing it for over 50 years with no noticeable impact.” Mr. Wenning could find no evidence that smoke from cedar chips and/or shavings might cause cancer as suggested by some.
Tobacco was also suggested to Mr. Wenning as a good fuel, with the added advantage that it might also knock down Varroa mites. There is little question that inhaling tobacco fumes either purposefully or as an innocent bystander (second-hand smoke) can cause health problems. Thus, Mr. Wenning concludes, the “jury dealing with the health concerns of beekeepers in relation to the use of various smoker fuels will remain out (with, perhaps, the exception of cigarette tobacco) until such time as the appropriate research is conducted — if ever.”
Perhaps more significant to beekeepers is the effect of some smoke on the bees themselves. This may be true for that from natural products like cedar chips, tobacco and sumac, but is perhaps more important with reference to treated materials producing toxic fumes in the smoker. Bailing twine, for example, may be treated with fire retardant and rat-chewing preventative (creosote). Cotton products might have high levels of pesticides, dyes or other substances incorporated into them. Cardboard, too, can be infused with a wide variety of chemicals that produce toxic or irritating smoke. The history of cardboard boxes if unknown and can be problematic, according to Dr. Frank Eischen at the Weslaco ARS facility, one of Mr. Wenning’s corresondents, who also reported that corn cob smoke killed bees in cage studies, but not immediately, beginning its effects four days after application.
Reduction of possible smoker fuel health problems might include several strategies, according to Mr. Wenning, such as reducing needless inhalation of smoke (holding the breath), using the bellows appropriately (pumping less vigorously) and guiding the smoke to where it’s most needed using the hand. In general, a minimum amount of smoke is often required to control even the most defensive colonies. For those with great concern, Mr. Wenning concludes, alternatives do exist. These include use of liquid smoke and/or water or sugar water mixed with essential oils (vanilla, peppermint).