Behind every mass-market product is an invention that made its creation cost-effective. In the case of honey, that technological marvel is the humble bellows smoker, which produces a non-toxic haze with the power to chill out agitated bees. It does so by messing with a colony’s communications system: Sentries are supposed to alert warriors to the approach of a threat (such as a beekeeper), a task they’re designed to accomplish by releasing powerful pheromones. But the smoke interferes with the sentries ability to secrete those key chemicals, and so the highly venomous soldiers ever get the signal to attack.
For centuries, the problem for beekeepers was how to produce a steady, long-lasting stream of smoke that would directly target the hive. Finally, in 1870, the great Moses Quinby devised an efficient bellows smoker that made modern beekeeping possible. A 1947 encyclopedia of the profession’s arcana paid tribute to Quinby’s genius:
One can drive cattle and horses, and to some extent even pigs, with a whip, but one who tries to control bees without smoke will find to his sorrow that the rest of the animal kingdom are mild in comparison, especially so far as stubbornness and reckless fearlessness of consequences are concerned. One may kill them by the thousands or may even burn them up with fire; but the death agonies of their comrades seem only to provoke them to a new fury, and they rush to the combat with a relentlessness which can be compared to nothing better than a nest of yellow jackets that have made up their minds to die, and to make all the mischief they possibly can before dying. It is here that the power of smoke comes in; and to one who is not conversant with its use it seems simply astonishing to see bees turn about and retreat in the most perfect dismay and fright, from the effects of a puff or two of smoke from a mere fragment of rotten wood. What could beekeepers do with bees at times, were no such potent power as smoke known?
Much more on the history of bee smokers here, including a rundown of who benefited from the fact that Quinby neglected to patent his landmark invention.