The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

The Secrets of Old Homemade Bee Smokers

- September 1, 2019 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

bee smokers

In this article, we examine the intriguing details of two homemade bee smokers.

In recent years, bee supply catalogs have grown thicker and heavier, from companies offering more equipment and specialty items. Catalog pages were once folded over, producing a thick (calendar) style fold as the spine of the catalog. Now bee suppliers publish catalogs by binding the pages together like a book. Also like a book, the bee supplier’s contact information appears on the binding. Remarkably, the bee supply catalog is evolving to become more like a beekeeping book.

In our time of ready-made, factory-produced equipment, easily ordered, shipped and received by a few mouse clicks, homemade beehives, smokers, and yes, even honey extractors seem remote and distant.

In times past, particularly during difficult economic hardships, unemployed beekeepers had more time than money. Clever beekeepers became innovative with the materials they had on hand. Or being independent, maybe beekeepers wanted a piece of equipment made a certain way to fit their working style.

Let’s launch our exploration into homemade bee smokers, from seemingly the wrong historical location, namely in a bee supply catalog of a major manufacturer, the A. I. Root Company right in its smoker section. Currently, the A. I. Root Company specializes in publishing and candle production. Years ago, the firm manufactured a complete line of bee supplies: hives and supers, honey extractors and storage tanks, etc., and of course –– bee smokers.

From the 1942 catalog, Figure 1 shows the smoker page. Their “Improved Root Smoker” resembles quite closely a modern smoker of today. The Root Company offered their smoker in four sizes, specified by the barrel sizes. (The barrel is the cylindrical part of the smoker holding the fire and fuel. Smokers with larger barrels generally need fewer refuelings.) The Root Company even named their different sized smokers. From the smallest up, they were the Junior, Standard, Jumbo, and Big Jumbo.

Figures 2 and 3 show Root’s Junior smoker with its barrel size of 3¼ by 5 inches (8.26 by 12.7 cm, diameter by height). “Good for a few colonies,” said the caption under the picture in the 1942 Root catalog. This little smoker sold for 85 cents. What if you enlarged your operation? That is, increased the number of hives. The little Junior smoker would quickly become too small, overwhelmed with the longer times spent inspecting colonies. What to do?  Buy a larger smoker –– of course. Ascend up the smoker page from the humble corner, advancing to, say, the Standard smoker, sporting a larger fuel capacity. The cost was expensive. A Standard smoker cost $1.05 in 1942. Changing from the Junior smoker to the Standard smoker increased the volume by a factor of 1.4.

Here is an alternate solution –– why not enlarge the smoker? How? Replace only the barrel of the Junior smoker with another “can” holding more fuel, providing a longer burn time. Keep Junior’s original funnel. The funnel worked fine and would be difficult to reproduce. Likewise keep the bellows too and the brackets attaching the bellows to the barrel.

A long time ago, before plastic containers became common, an unknown but innovative beekeeper searched for a metal can, needing one to rebuild a smoker. Figure 4 reveals the clever result. As best as I can tell from the scorched advertising paint surviving on the can, it originally contained four pounds of vegetable shortening for cooking.

To refuel the smoker, the beekeeper removed the top of the can. (Yes, that is obvious, but my historical studies in apiculture, also in railroad history, have taught me not to take the obvious for granted. See the next smoker example.) The top fits tightly which is good for being a smoker. However as a smoker lid, the can top lacks a hinge or a wire-loop for a cool handle. I can tell the smoker was used, but it would have required patience to use it.

Whether from a lack of cash or because of metal restrictions during World War II, expanding the Junior smoker seemed to have been a viable solution in this case. Figuring the final cost might not be relevant since ….