Many things have been used, and can be used for smoker fuel.
Commercially available smoker fuels include:-
This is easily rolled to form a cartridge that is just a little smaller than the firebox of the smoker. They tend to burn at a fairly high temperature with an acrid smell. The type illustrated is formed from a type of material that has one flat laminate and one corrugated one. If you intend making this type for yourself you must establish that the material has not been treated with fire retarding chemicals.
Make the rolls of full width material and then cut to length using an overhand circular saw. Although this is a relatively soft material, it tends to take the edge off of the tungsten carbide blade inserts and the job should be relegated to just before a saw blade is due for re-sharpening.
This by product from the tobacco industry consists of leaf stalks, thick leaf veins and tatty bits of tobacco leaf that have been rejected for use as recreational smoking materials.
This form of tobacco is most commonly found on mainland Europe, in use for bee smoker fuel. I believe that it is also one of the materials that are used in the German mouth powered "Imker Pfeife" type of smoker. I have not used this material myself, but I used to sell it when I was in business... It was a slow, but steady selling item.
The illustrations at right show two type of compressed cotton smoker fuel.
I have had good reports of this material as it lasts a very long time before needing replenishment and it stays alight in a reliable fashion. It is good for beekeeping demonstrations for both of these reasons and is likely to stay alight between such demonstrations.
Burlap or Hessian Sacking
These fabrics smoulder in a slow and reliable fashion... The Burlap is far right.
If the material is to be cut from old, used, sacks... Then these should be left out of doors for a summer so that the rain can wash out any residue of whatever the sacks may have originally contained.
I have no experience of freshly made burlap cloth, but I have used a good deal of weathered and partially rotted material. I have tried both fresh and used hessian and find that the used material is easier to ignite than the freshly made cloth which has a hard shine to the surface of the fibres.
Herbal Smoker Fuel
There are various herbal mixtures used for this purpose, but as yet I have little information, when I have found out more about it I will put the details here.
I was sent the following information by a Danish guy... Jens Jørgen Krag Hansen.
"I have used lavender as fuel in my smoker with very good results. It is cut into small pieces using a compost shredder. It has a calming effect on the bees and smells a great deal better then anything else I have tried."
Compressed Wood chip pellets
These are available in the USA, but I have not seen any on sale in UK so far. The Mann Lake Catalogue lists it and claims that it is clean burning. My own experiences with wood shavings that result from manual planing of timber, would lead me to believe that the smoke would be rather hot. However I did try some 11 mm cubes of wood that resulted from a repetitive machining operation... They worked well when they were first lit, but tended to form charcoal and as time elapsed the smoke became hotter and contained less aromatic or volatile components.
My personal favourite fuel is as follows:- Pre fabricated cartridges 70 mm in diameter about 70 mm in length... Made from strips of "burlap" sacking or other cloth interleaved with strips of corrugated cardboard that have been cut with the channels running across the strip. Once rolled into a cartridge the corrugations in the cardboard form a set of parallel channels that promote airflow and the mixture of the two types of material give a balanced, cool, fragrant and effective smoke. This home made fuel is convenient to carry and each cartridge lasts for rather more than an hour once lit. When a cartridge is part consumed a second one can be placed on top of the first for continuity. The corrugated cardboard used is of the "tri-wall" type recovered from cardboard boxes and the burlap is cut from old weathered sacks. The photograph at left gives clear detail of the construction. I collect the materials throughout the year and make up a large batch in early January. These are than packed in cardboard cartons for use whenever needed.
Having said all the above I must admit that I use very little smoke these days. I find that deft and sympathetic handling are all that is needed to handle "good quality bees".
A young lady in Scotland named Ann often grows sunflowers... She dries the stalks over the winter and cuts them into lengths to suit the firebox.
Many beekeepers recommend the fibrous rotting wood from the stumps of willow trees. I have used this material myself and would comment that extra fuel needs to be available as the rate of consumption is high and it works best if it is added little and often.
Dried grapevine prunings are said to pacify the bees, while being pleasant smelling to human noses.
Smoker Fuel Experiments
I have tried small pine cones... These tend to be resinous and need several years of drying time. They produce a smoke which is fragrant, as far as the beekeepers nose is concerned, but I have noticed individual bees become agitated and "twitchy" on the occasions that I used them and so I now use them for lighting my log fire instead. The tin can is perforated with many holes to create a brazier, lighting is achieved by a wad of crumpled newsprint in the bottom of the can (which also has holes in it).
The holes in my experimental example were smaller and more numerous than my crude drawing suggests.
Shredded Paper... When I was in business, I was mindful of security and shredded many documents. I made an attempt to use the resulting ribbons of paper as a smoker fuel, but this was not successful for several reasons:-
Consequently the smoker died almost immediately that the operator ceased to squeeze the bellows. This was a pity because it was a product that never ran out and the cost was zero.
Doug Appleton, an Australian correspondent says...
"I'd like to offer a sugestion for smoker fuel that I often use. I use the paper mache egg cartons that seem to accumulate in the kitchen. They light easily and burn with a cool smoke for a good length of time. I tear a few strips into the bottom and get them well alight before breaking up the rest of the container and shoving it in on top of the already burnibf shreds then close the lid and a few puffs of the bellows keeps it going. These paper mache cartons are in common use in Australia, but maybe not so in other countries."