photographs by Lissa Gotwals

Alice Hinman has a simple tool kit to tend her honeybee hives. She uses a hive tool — a crowbar shorter than your forearm — to pry open hive lids and separate frames. She wears a hat and carries a veil in case she needs to shroud her face from the hive’s curious or angry citizens. She has a brush to gently herd fuzzy ladies around combs, and frames to keep them safe from being squished and out of the way for honey harvest. And she has a smoker — a tin of tinder stoked by bellows. Hinman puffs smoke into a hive’s entrance to say, “I’m here. Don’t worry.” Before she lifts the hive’s lid, she pushes more small smoke gusts over the frames to tell the bees, “Please, stay calm. It’s only me.”

Hinman, a beekeeper in Raleigh, has spent most of the past decade tending dozens of hives across the city — on the roofs of downtown buildings like Sitti restaurant, in residential backyards, and tucked into community gardens.

As Hinman gently pumps her smoker, the soft haze tranquilizes the bees. Instead of pinging her with their indignant bodies, the sedate bees allow her to crack open the hive’s roof, remove its lid, and pull out the wooden frames that scaffold the bees’ wax comb. Hinman moves slowly, working to the rhythm of the thousands of insects she tends. “Being in a hive engages all your senses,” she says. “The scents, the sounds, the visuals. It’s an immersive practice.”

Without understanding why, we sensed that smoke would relax our bees.

Sometimes, she goes frame by frame, checking to be sure there are plenty of pearl-white eggs and larvae, called brood, and pollen packed in each cell. Other times, she removes wax-capped, honey-laden frames to take home to eat or to share with other hives in need. Hinman likes honey as much as her hives’ tenants do, but for her, the honey is a treat. For her bees, it’s essential to their survival. They will protect it with their lives. When a worker honeybee stings to defend her colony, unlike almost any other bee species, her barbed stinger snags skin like a fishhook, ripping the stinger, muscles, and venom from the bee. Now defenseless and broken, the bee soon dies. Hinman knows this, and she knows that one way to prevent her bees from stinging is to keep them calm. So she moves deliberately, mindfully, and smokes them when she needs to.

Hinman and Nate Kelty (left), the special programs developer for Apiopolis, check the progress of the nonprofit’s new apiaries at the home of architect Frank Harmon in Raleigh. photograph by Lissa Gotwals

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The first version of the modern bee smoker was designed by a man named Moses Quinby in the late 1800s to blow gentle, warm clouds on kept bees in man-made hives. But we humans have been smoking bees since before the written language. Paintings smeared onto cave walls more than 10,000 years ago show us climbing a ladder up a bee tree, hopeful and ready, bees swarming all around. Ancient Egyptians, who burned incense as offerings to their honeybees, likely observed the calming quality of its smoke. Before them, we built campfires beneath wild hives and carried smoldering torches as we crept up trees to raid hives for honey. Without understanding why, we sensed that smoke would relax our bees — it would help them invite us into their homes.

Today, we know that smoke blankets bees’ senses. Within a colony, bees use chemicals called pheromones to talk to each other, and smoke interferes with their conversations. “It masks the alarm pheromone,” Hinman says. “For bees, it’s like trying to talk in a crowded room.” Instead of panicking at the sight of a keeper cracking open their house, bees slow down; they focus on their jobs.

Wild honeybees have a complex relationship with smoke and fire. They live in tree cavities, and their houses are essentially tinder exposed to lightning strikes and wildfires. But those houses are only shells that hold their homes — waxen sheets filled with young bees and ripening honey. If their houses turn to ashes in a blaze, honeybees can easily reconstruct their homes if they still have their queen — and their honey. So, when bees smell a lot of smoke, they instinctually prepare to rebuild, filling their bellies with honey, just in case.

Like the bees Hinman cares for, most North Carolina bees don’t live in trees. Instead, they live in hive boxes that we build, packed with exactly measured frames, also made by us. Each frame, a panoply of perfect hexagonal wax cells; each cell, a tiny room to ripen honey, to rear young, to hide pollen. We take their honey and, in return, feed them like puppies when they run out of food in the cold.

Hinman’s smoker is one of many tools she uses as she tends to the bees. photograph by Lissa Gotwals

Though we keep bees in boxes, our honeybees still have a little wildness in them. We build their houses, but inside, they make their own homes just as their ancestors did. They fly where they want, pouring from their boxes to fan across the landscape in search of flowers.

Even in winter, bees persist. Unlike most insects that die when the weather turns cold, or hide, quiet and still underground, honeybee colonies don’t hibernate. To endure the cold in winter — and survive hot, dry periods in summer — they thicken nectar into honey, which doesn’t spoil. This is their liquid gold, their secret to survival.

They get angry with us when we aren’t gentle with them. They communicate the same way as their ancestors, so we must speak to them in the same smoky language as our ancestors.

Ten thousand years ago, a human climbed a narrow ladder to reach a hole in a tree. Today, Alice Hinman climbs her own ladder to reach the roof of a downtown Raleigh building. Both beekeepers hang on to their smoldering flames, their doorbells trailing them like wraiths. Both colonies of bees whir and quiver when the smoke drifts in, a shivering wave rippling across 50,000 little bodies. Who is it? they ask each other. Both humans send short gusts of smoke into black doorways. “It’s only me,” they say. “Quiet now, please. Stay calm.”

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Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.

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