Why the smoker? A necessity for preventing bee stings, even more than wearing your trusty bee suit, the smoker disrupts the bees’ normal cascade of defense when they perceive a threat. Smoked bees will flee from the source of smoke (you!) rather than advance in a defensive reaction. The result is less flight and stinging behavior.
You can see as soon as you start smoking a hive, the bees start to retreat into the frames of the hive, away from you with less contact to the beekeeper. But keeping my smoker lit was always frustrating. I would always bring my propane torch with me to relight my smoker, not once but multiple times.
How a bee smoker works
The process of a smoker is simple — forcing air into the fire chamber from below with the bellows, the air proceeds through the ignited fuel and exits from the spout at top. This means that the flame should be below the fuel, not above. For twenty years, I packed my smoker with fuel and ignited it at the top and the smoker would always burn out once the small amount of fuel was exhausted on top of the flame. I observed a master beekeeper light his smoker and my beekeeping world changed! No longer would I have a bee smoker that burned out in just a few minutes before I was finished manipulating my hives.
As a Girl Scout I learned to make an efficient campfire. You don’t just throw a bunch of sticks on top of newspaper to start a campfire. There was a process. Starting with three sticks in the shape of the letter A (A frame), you then placed very fine, dry tinder on top of a fire starter (candle wax mixed with dryer lint)and lit the fire starter. Once the tinder was going good, you placed progressively larger diameter kindling to get a good fire going. Plenty of oxygen surrounds the tinder (you can puff air into it) and is incorporated, so you just add heat in the form of a match or torch, and the fire burns and lasts.
The same principle applies to the smoker. Start with a twist of newspaper, cardboard, pine needles, burlap, or straw, light that with a torch, and add some fuel on top with plenty of oxygen (pumping the bellows). Only after that small fire is going good do you add other larger and longer burning kindling like small twigs and bark on top, always injecting oxygen with the bellows.Start at the bottom and work your way to the top and you will have a nice little contained burn in your smoker that will last through many inspections.
For more on bee smokers, check out Making Botanical Smoker Fuel.