The Hardest Part of Beekeeping…Made Simple


3 forms of cotton bee smoker fuel. Click image for an enlarged image.

Ask a dozen beekeepers what the hardest part of beekeeping is and you will get 13 different answers. But at least a third or more of those answers will be related to lighting a smoker and keeping it lit.  Pine needles are the smoker fuel of choice in the southeastern US and they have been my preferred smoker fuel because they are effective, plentiful, and cheap (free). But pine needles are not perfect:

  • Pine needles can burn hot – so hot that you can singe bees.
  • A bundle of pines needles can go from a flaming torch in your fist to smoke and then nothing in less than a couple seconds.
  • I am lucky if my smoker – packed full of pine needles – produces smoke for more than 20 minutes.

In the past, I have tried twine, burlap, untreated cardboard, and wood chips but I always come back to pine needles because I know that my pine needles have not been treated with chemicals such as rodenticides, plastic coatings, polyester or plastic fibers, anti-rot treatments, or inks. It is really hard to know what is in your smoker fuel.

So I recently got the opportunity to try yet another smoker fuel: cotton fabric from a family-run textile mill in the North Carolina Piedmont.  It had two marks against it right away: it wasn’t free like pine needles and it was a man-made material. As it turned out, both concerns were unfounded. The cotton smoker fuel is incredibly cheap if avoiding the frustration of keeping a smoker going is worth anything to you. And Lance  McLean of assures me that the fabric is made from raw, undyed, untreated cotton.

So how does it compare to pine needles? Raw cotton terry cloth is my new favorite. It is different from pine needle fuel in several ways:

  • The cotton disks are a little harder to light than dry pine needles and I was never able to get them to produce flame. That means that I won’t be singing the hair on the back of my hand as I do regularly with a flaming torch of pine needles.
  • A single 8″ disk of fabric produced smoke for longer than 20 minutes. I could probably stuff 4 or more disks into my smoker.
  • Once lit, the cotton disks smolder and do not go out.  Believe me, my wife tried. I was able to pick a smoldering disk of fabric out of my smoker (after 20 minutes or more) and put it on a gravel driveway. She stomped on it but it continued to smolder and produce smoke.  I was only able to extinguish it by dousing it with water. I love that.
  • The smoke is not as thick or acrid as pine needle smoke and I like that as well. As my beekeeping matures, I find that I use less and less smoke…hoping to avoid enraging the bees.
  • If you allow the cotton to burn out in the smoker, you are left with the tiniest pile of grey ash. Unlike most smoker fuels, the cotton burns completely.
It never really caught flame for me but it sure smoldered for a long time.

The cotton disk never really caught flame for me but it sure smoldered with a cool smoke for a long time. offers three versions of the same raw cotton:

  • 8 inch cotton terry circles – these are what I tested
  • Cuttings remaining from the circles – same material but priced much less
  • Cotton spools ends – just the thread. I haven’t tried this yet. I will report when I do. I expect it to be very similar to the other two. It’s advantage is that if you only need a little smoke, you can burn only what you need. They also have a sampler pack that you can purchase for next to nothing (free shipping too).

It hasn’t been easy for the textile industry in North Carolina. Here is a way to support a small, US family business seeking to innovate, to reduce waste in manufacturing (this is even better than recycling), and to use a natural, US-grown product that really simplifies your job of managing bees.


Leave a Reply