Some may be familiar with a martial arts called Tai Chi Chuan, or ultimate fist, based on the Tao philosophy. A principle of this form is that one should strive to be like water, at once the softest of materials, which at the same time is one that can erode rocks. Masters seek to be so soft that attackers’ energy actually rebounds against them and they can be knocked down with little perceived action by the defender. Another way of putting this is that while less is more, much less is much more.
It is Costa Rican Dr. William Ramirez’s opinion that many beekeepers in his country and other places in the American tropics oversmoke their colonies. Although not considered a problem in European bees, he says, which don’t usually have much of a temper, when Africanized bees (AHB) are treated this way, all hell breaks loose. At first blush, this concept appears to have little grounding in fact. Much has been said of the AHB and its reaction to smoke. Beekeepers who have been to international meetings or seen videos of Africanized honey bee management are aware of the large smokers used by beekeepers in the tropics to keep these sometimes overdefensive insects under control. In most cases, not only is an oversize smoke pot used, but there may be one employee whose only job is to make and apply more and more smoke. Use less, not more smoke is Dr. Ramirez’ rebuttal to those who would counsel such a course of action.
To prove his point, Dr. Ramirez ventured into a hot (literally and figuratively) Africanized bee yard in Trinidad last August as part of a field trip connected with the First Caribbean Apicultural Congress (1999). One hive had already been provoked to the point that its occupants were pretty much out of control. Once a colony gets into that state, this generally alarms nearby hives and they also become defensive. Dr. Ramirez, however, approached a colony that had yet to be opened and applied the smoking ultimate fist, just a light puff to the entrance and under the top. He waited two minutes, then proceeded to manipulate the nest. After opening the colony, Dr. Ramirez put his hand in front of the smoker to delicately spread the plume over the top bars, minimizing the smoke, much like one would use a finger to control a water hose spray. In short order, he was able to complete his manipulations and move on without more than a sting or two. It was then that the idea hit me. Perhaps for the most defensive of bees, one should use the smallest amount of smoke, as any Tai Chi Chuan master might counsel.
Part and parcel of this is waiting at least two minutes after administering the first puffs before beginning manipulations. This initial time period in fact may be the key to the Tao of smoking bees. It is possible that once that time threshold has passed, a switch has turned off the colony’s defensive tendencies. Puffing and going immediately, as is the wont of many beekeepers unwilling or unable to wait, may not allow enough time for the colony to get the message. Much more study is required on this issue to better develop scientific knowledge about honey bee reaction to smoke. The defensive threshold may be quite different at certain times or with specific races of bees. It is also many beekeepers’ experience that hybrid honey bees often are more defensive. The smoker remains the first line of defense and the dictum to keep it well lighted and at the ready should always be heeded by the careful beekeeper.
Contributor Rusty Burlew also chimes in on the topic of how much smoke to use. Everyone should search for the “sweet spot” here; not too much, nor too little.